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Key Considerations for Community-Engaged Research

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Scientific research involving members of the general public takes on many forms: citizen science, community science, and participatory research, just to name a few. While these types of projects all differ in their aims, scope, and impact, they share a commitment to building ways for the public to play an important role in the research process. 

Science with the public

There are benefits for those on both sides of the relationship. Researchers get access to data that would be impossible to collect on their own, while participants get a first-hand opportunity to see science in action, often right in their own neighborhoods. 

Nature lovers of all ages, for example, can track seasonal changes using Nature’s Notebook, a program that captures data from participants across the country. Research teams use the data to inform practices such as improving invasive plant management techniques and building better predictive models of tree leaf emergence. People can engage in participatory science virtually as well: the Chimp&See project, developed by the Pan African Programme, invites participants to watch video footage of wild chimpanzees and help document chimpanzee behavior. Reported findings are then used to inform research on the behavioral and cultural diversity of chimpanzees. Hubs for participatory research initiatives like these, such as scistarter.org and zooniverse.org, feature hundreds more projects, covering a diverse array of research topics. 

Science for good

Participatory research can have important social and political impacts as well. Some community-based projects focus on public health and policy issues raised by community members themselves. Spurred into action by concerns about air pollution caused by nearby petroleum tanks, residents in South Portland, Maine, initiated their own air monitoring programLatinos Unidos por la Salud, a community-based participatory research project co-designed by University of Cincinnati researchers and a community research team comprised of local Latina residents, investigated barriers to healthcare for Latino immigrants. In this type of participatory research, projects are usually developed by a team of researchers and community members, with each group contributing to the overall design of and vision for the project. 

The advantages of undertaking scientific work with community partners have led to a tremendous increase in its popularity. As more projects and partnerships are formed, it will be beneficial to investigate how adhering to best practices and other considerations ensures that participants are treated fairly and project goals are achieved.  

Working with community partners

Research under development by PEWS members identifies several key considerations for cultivating participatory research relationships and for doing research with community partners. Whether the aim is to produce scientific articles, build a course around community-engaged learning, or start up a grassroots community-based project, keeping these considerations in mind can aid in the successful design and implementation of participatory research projects. 

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The first thing to note is that there is no single formula for developing a participatory research project, and the same goes for developing a community partnership. Context matters, and will depend on the goals of the project and the type of relationship that develops. 

It’s also important to have the relevant background knowledge in place before initiating a project. This often translates to taking the time to know what matters to the potential community partner so that their needs and goals can be at the forefront as the project develops. And for community-based projects, it’s essential that the interests of participants are built in every step of the way. Some considerations might be: How will they benefit from being involved in the project? How can they be compensated for their contribution? What resources do they have or lack access to? Attending to these questions can aid in balancing the power dynamic between researchers and community partners. 

Building on existing relationships

Making use of existing resources can streamline the design process. To start, it is helpful to explore what projects, groups, and relationships already exist locally. Building on existing resources can also aid in ensuring that the project has an impact beyond its duration, and that relationships formed can outlive the project to benefit the broader communities involved. 

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When a project comes to its conclusion, partnerships might naturally dissolve. But this can negatively impact community participants, for whom the practical outcomes of the project might matter for their daily lives. Here, following up is key. Whether it’s working together to report findings to policy makers, coordinating new partnerships and connections, or even just hosting a get-together to celebrate everyone’s hard work, building in space for all involved to reflect on what the project has accomplished and how it has impacted the community is central in cultivating successful partnerships.

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