Who Decides How a Topic Will Be Studied?
It is sometimes useful to break the research process into what and how. The last section discussed “what.” This section looks at “how.” Please note that this section is not intended to describe all of the different ways that research can be done (qualitative approaches, quantitative approaches, etc). Here we are simply trying to raise some of the partnership issues that emerge when decisions are made about how a topic will be studied.
Hidden Partners: Many partnerships discover that one of the first things to be aware of is that when they are talking about how research will be carried out there are often other hidden “partners” that are in the room shaping how decisions will be made. If the research is being done with funding from a foundation or federal source (in the United States such as the National Institutes of Health), the hidden partner is a review panel that often severely limits the options for what will be considered good science. Another hidden partner is often the peer reviewers at a journal where the researchers are aiming to publish the research.
Why keep these hidden partners in mind? Partnerships are keeping these hidden partners in mind because they are often flavoring the discussion whether we realize it or not. Their impact can be especially great in terms of decisions about “how.”
An example: Below is an example that can perhaps help partnerships think about this “how” issue. As with other examples, we have changed things a bit to protect the innocent (or guilty) without changing the essential points. So, here’s the example.
Background: The US Centers for Disease Control has a major multiyear research-intervention program going on in a number of cities across the United States. This program is a part of the CDC emphasis on reducing health disparities. The intent is to understand what kinds of disparities exist and what kinds of strategies might be successful among particular groups in reducing these disparities. In each city, the program is built on a partnership model whereby groups from health care centers, underserved community, and universities come together to first identify the most pressing health problem and then advance solutions.
The research approach: CDC dictates that, as a part of the program, each participating community must carry out a survey of a representative sample of individuals at risk for health disparities. The design of the survey should be based on the latest research on how people obtain their health information and surveyors must be of the ethnic group that is being surveyed. All must be thoroughly trained to follow the exact protocol. The results must be reported to CDC.
What happened: In one city where this surveying was done the targeted group reported feeling pretty demoralized. They were trained by researchers not of their cultural background to administer the survey. The training was detailed and rigorous and focused on how to do the surveying right. Little room was left for flexibility. Each surveyor had a list of addresses to go to and was expected to meet goals of the number of people who participated.
The result: Very nice information resulted from the study. The partnership had clear information about how people obtain their health information (as it turns out, from a local cable television show in their own language). Many questions were answered about the frequency of smoking and other behaviors. The information can be used to plan a variety of interventions. On the other hand, those who were recruited to collect the data felt that they were not treated like colleagues and were not given much room to comment on strategies for strengthening the ways that the research was carried out.
So partnerships are trying to think about how to approach this situation differently. What might your partnership see as the problems? Can they be solved? How would your partnership go about solving them?
The Upshot: Research partnerships create the opportunity to do good research that makes a difference. They also provide the opportunity for everything to fly out of control, for groups to find that they don’t work well together, and for groups to become alienated from each other. Your partnership is now on your way (hopefully) in designing ways to keep these problems from happening.
In the next section we consider some of the dilemmas being raised by the “what” and “how” issues. In particular, we will look at the questions of “Who is the Community?” and “Who is the Researcher?”