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Office of Research (OR)

Principles for Community-Based Research

Commentary

Many socially significant research questions can only be addressed in a community setting with the active assistance of community members. The University of Washington's Principles for Community-Based Research provide a framework for mutually beneficial relationships between researchers and community members. These guidelines were formulated in 1996 and were subsequently endorsed by the Board of Deans and the President. They are particularly relevant for research projects that involve groups who are recognized as speaking for a community, that utilize or affect community infrastructure, or that have the potential for creating or altering community identity by the way they treat research participants or report findings. The Principles, however, are only a starting point.

Community-based researchers must negotiate the difficult, often blurred, boundaries between advocacy and inquiry. Although the research may serve a larger advocacy function, its claims must be able to withstand public and scientific scrutiny. Its value as well as the value of our larger institutional role in society depends on our ability to defend it against charges of research bias. This means we must always bear in mind the distinction between our voices as researchers and our voices as social activists or speakers on behalf of a particular conception of social justice.

Particular care must be taken when money changes hands. It is quite acceptable for “community assets” to be enhanced through research activities, for example, but it is violation of state law to use funds targeted to research for any activity that is not part of the research plan itself. In cases where there are cultural differences or a history of tension, there is no substitute for researchers and community members working through the contract with the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) personnel face-to-face. Discussions with OSP early in the contracting process can also be help avoid problems when subcontracting with smaller community agencies. For example, they frequently do not have the financial reserves to carry employees who have been hired to work on a project while waiting for the typical UW payment cycle.

The Principles of Community-based Research, as originally stated, probably do not provide adequate guidance regarding distinctions in roles and responsibilities. The research act, as we all know, is a complex one involving diverse skills and decisions. Community members are more appropriately part of some aspects of research than others. For instance, although it is both appropriate and valuable to consult with community members on the design of a survey instrument, they will probably not have a role to play in the statistical interpretation of its structure. Clear boundaries should be stated at the outset. Community members are much more likely to let us do our job if we make it clear that we are going to let them do theirs. Finally, although consultation with community representatives prior to publication is important, they should be aware that no individual or group will have the authority to prevent publication.

Good community-based research is often a difficult social achievement. Badly handled projects can, and do, leave damaging trails of mistrust. Yet contributing to the life of state and regional communities through research is central to our mission. When well handled, community-based projects enhance public support for research universities. They are an effective mechanism for enhancing interdisciplinary connections within the University. Most importantly, communities benefit from the expertise and resources we can provide, and we benefit from the insights, assistance, and opportunities they provide.

Principles

  1. Community partners should be involved at the earliest stages of the project, helping to define research objectives and having input into how the project will be organized.
  2. Community partners should have real influence on project direction--that is, enough leverage to ensure that the original goals, mission, and methods of the project are adhered to.
  3. Research processes and outcomes should benefit the community. Community members should be hired and trained whenever possible and appropriate, and the research should help build and enhance community assets.
  4. Community members should be part of the analysis and interpretation of data and should have input into how the results are distributed. This does not imply censorship of data or of publication, but rather the opportunity to make clear the community's views about the interpretation prior to final publication.
  5. Productive partnerships between researchers and community members should be encouraged to last beyond the life of the project. This will make it more likely that research findings will be incorporated into ongoing community programs and therefore provide the greatest possible benefit to the community from research.
  6. Community members should be empowered to initiate their own research projects which address needs they identify themselves.