Researchers: Four Lessons Learned About Working With Community Partners

Researchers gathered to share stories and insights about their partnerships conducting research with non-academic community partners at the 103rd annual National Communication Association convention in Dallas, Texas, this past November. Below I have summarized some of the insights they shared during our panel in the form of lessons they have learned along the way.

Panelists included, from left to right: Dr. John Parrish-Sprowl, Dr. Michelle Miller-Day, Tara Watterson (co-chair), Dr. Joann Keyton (co-chair), Dr. Jennifer Ohs, and Dr. Angela Gist-Mackey.

1. Written agreements can help protect you. Every panelist underscored the importance of formalizing the partnership and getting buy-in from decision makers in the organization with which you are partnering, usually via a written agreement. Written agreements can help protect you in case your contact at the organization leaves the position, hopefully preventing you from losing access. John Parrish-Sprowl of Indiana University encouraged researchers not to be bashful about protecting themselves through written agreements. Michelle Miller-Day of Chapman University said securing buy-in from multiple members of the organization has been crucial for the success of her research partnerships. Also, making expectations about data sharing and research outputs explicit can help ensure you are both on the same page since you and your partner are likely to have differing conceptions of research process, protocols, and outputs.

Have a handy resource, for example, a template or sample of an agreement with a community partner that you’ve used? Please join the Year of Community Research to share this resource!

2. IRB poses new challenges. Several panelists shared challenges associated with IRB. A couple of panelists agreed that although IRB and human subjects protection is important, non-academic partners are often befuddled at the need for it or turned off at the demands for signed consent forms, etc. Jennifer Ohs of St. Louis University said she ran into delays when she found she would have to secure IRB approval from both her home institution and her research partner’s healthcare institution, which added months to the timeline.

Joann Keyton of NC State University expressed the need for a short video explaining the importance of human subjects protection for social scientific research purposes that is made for non-academic audiences. Know of a resource like this? Please join the Year of Community Research to share this resource!

3. Ethical concerns arise in the field. Panelists also described instances where they had to make decisions about how to handle situations in the field that they hadn’t faced previously. These situations included differing cultural expectations and diversions by the partner from agreed-upon research protocol. One panelist described pushing back when the partner wanted to change incentives for participants in the middle of the study, at which point the researcher requested not to do so and explained how that would change the research design.

Have ideas for reading material, etc. to help navigate ethical concerns that arise during community research? Please join the Year of Community Research campaign and share this resource!

4. Community research takes more time. Panelists agreed that research in the community is more rewarding, exciting, and challenging. However, panelists also agreed that this type of research takes extra resource commitment, namely, time. It requires researchers to navigate the challenges listed in this post, among others. Partnership involves seeking shared interest, but rarely does every interest overlap. Researchers sometimes make extra commitments in order to accommodate the development needs of the partner organization that didn’t fully align with the theoretical needs of the researcher. Angela Gist-Mackey of University of Kansas shared how she agreed to conduct communication training for a partner organization as part of the agreement for research access.

Have tips for managing the time demands associated with community research? Please join the Year of Community Research and share this resource!

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