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How to craft a research project with non-academic collaborators

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Simon Baker: 00:07

Hello, this is Team Science, a podcast brought to you by Nature Careers in partnership with Nature Index.

I’m Simon Baker, chief editor at Nature Index, which tracks research articles in leading science journals. In this series, we explore behind the scenes of academia, and speak to the people who make it all possible, but do not necessarily get the credit.

This series is sponsored by Western Sydney University. And at the end of this episode, we’ll hear about how it is helping to champion team science.

In episode five, we meet scientists who are pushing for all the contributors to research, from data collectors to technicians, to receive full credit for what they do.

Richard Holliman: 00:53

My name is Richard Holliman, I’m a professor of engaged research. And I work at the Open University in the United Kingdom. And I’m based in the school of environment, earth and ecosystem sciences.

My main area of research is, is engagement at the moment. So I’m interested in the relationship between knowledge in society, and how different people can contribute to knowledge. Production, particularly.

And how did I get here? Well, my background started way back in the mid 90s, where I was a media researcher. And I was studying the way that science was portrayed in different forms of television news, and newspapers.

And they use a model where which which required me to look at contributions to the scientists. contributions from journalists, contributions for decision makers, and contributions from the public.

And the interesting thing is, when I started to look at the different case studies, that notion of the public, as a single entity, obviously became much more complicated and much more interesting.

And that’s really where my journey starts. Just by thinking about the public in a much more sophisticated way.

And once you start opening up in those particular examples, I started becoming interested in that in the governance of science, in the way that science was thought of in an ethical sense. And those kinds of conversations start to bring in these different contributions from different experts, and people with different lived experiences.

And that really starts to broaden out my research agenda to start to think, “Okay, in each research project that I do, who could contribute, in what ways, and in what ways is the research useful for them?”

So that’s really where I’ve got to. But it starts very much in that media, and then broadens out from there.

The project I’m going to talk about is a project which is based in Guyana, which is in South America. And they have an issue, a big issue, which is obviously a global health issue around malaria.

And one of the biggest problems they had was that the World Health Organization’s strategy was effectively insecticide-spraying intensively. So it’s right across the board, was one of the biggest issues.

So what a researcher called Andrea Beradi, who I’ve worked on the project with, who’d been based in Guyana for for 20 plus years, was obviously interested in how you how do you reduce the amount of insecticide you’re spraying at any one time, to be more targeted.

And he got us involved in this project, which started to look at producing an early warning system, which would allow you to detect where the mosquitoes were breeding, and then target your insecticide spraying in that in that area.

And that’s a combination of satellite technology, drones and ground monitoring systems. So the project was really about designing this technical system, but doing it with indigenous researchers to allow us to ensure that the way that the system worked worked for them, and that they can use it and adapt it over time.

So that’s really where it comes in, from Andrea’s work originally. But then bringing in, I say this, this piece of technology would really help on the ground, to reduce this just intensive spraying of insecticide.

So when we started the project, it was very much a case of these individuals were co-researchers.

So they were part of the project team. So in that sense, it was absolutely logical. But obviously (a) we should we should find some way of paying them to do the work with us. So we were being paid. Why would then not be paid?

And then towards the kind of the end of the project, how could we recognize their contributions or their research? So obviously, they were co-authors on the paper.

So that was a really straightforward example of just recognizing contributions from some fabulous people.

I think more broadly in terms of engaged research, there are these questions about how you do this for me And then the obvious thing to me is recognition of who’s contributed and in what ways they’ve contributed.

So that could be co authorship on paper. That could be simple things where we co-write reports, which are not peer reviewed papers, because they’re more useful to that community. So you look, what types of report will be useful for that community? What type of presentation will be useful for that kind of community? It’s giving people opportunities to contribute to little videos, to podcasts like this, to blog posts.

So lots of different ways of contributing, but in ways that really are meaningful for the for the individuals you’re working with, because not everybody wants to be on a peer reviewed academic paper. And to be fair, that kind of contribution may not be useful for them,, but they want to be recognized for the work they’ve done. I think the key issue for me, which is a kind of little side issue around the kind of recognition we all want, but it’s really important is to say it’s all about communication, talking to them about what they need, what’s useful, how do they want to be recognized.

And on the reward front, there is a little side issue, but it is really important, about whether payment is useful for them, which sounds like an obvious thing to save, actually, in some instances, it can cause more problems than it helps.

So the obvious example, that if you’re working with anybody who’s on benefits, or something like that, it becomes an enormously complicated if you start to pay them. So actually, they, they’re mainly just just some form of acknowledgement on the project.

Lorraine van Blerk: 06:37

So I’m Lorraine van Blerk. I’m a professor of human geography at the University of Dundee. I’m also the asociate dean for research in the school of humanities, social sciences and law.

Growing up on the streets is an international research project that worked with approximately 200 young people aged 14 to 20, in three African cities. That was Accra, in Ghana, Bukavu in the DRC, and Harare in Zimbabwe.

It was a longitudinal participatory research project, and it was developed to examine and better understand the lives and conditions affecting children and youth living on the streets and in informal settlements.

Well, the approach of the research for growing up on the streets was participatory and co-produced research. So we worked with young people who were both informants, but also researchers in the project.

So six young people in each of the cities were trained in basic ethnographic methods and research skills. And then they were recruited onto the project as researchers.

And so they worked part-time for a period of three years, as young researchers on the streets working with their peers.

So they would they would carry on their normal daily lives, they were all living on the streets. And they would work with a group of approximately 10 other peers in their cities, and engage with them on a daily basis. And then every week, they would recount their ethnographic reports.

So not quite an interview, but a kind of ethnographic dialogue and collaboration with one of our NGO partners in each of the cities. And that was partly because their ethnography had to be done verbally, it was not something that they could write down. Many of them did not go to school for very long, and so didn’t quite have literacy skills to be able to do that.

But they did that work for three years, really engaged in their own communities and working with their peers, and understanding their lived experiences on the street.

So I grew up in Scotland, on the west coast around Glasgow studied at the University of Strathclyde.

And then at Royal Holloway, I focused a little bit more on development geography, looking at issues around social justice in the Global South.

And then from there, I did a Master’s dissertation looking at informal education for girls in Pakistan. And so that was my first sort of real experience of overseas fieldwork.

When I came back from from doing that research, I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD, and ended up doing my PhD, looking at the place of street children in Kampala and Uganda. Particularly looking at the social and spatial inequalities that they experienced growing up in in those communities in the late 1990s.

And that’s really been a focus of my research. For the last 20 years now. I have continued to focus on geographies of children and youth in particular, in east, west and southern Africa.

Although I have also done some work with refugee youth in Jordan, and young people in Brazil. But my research really draws attention to inequalities experienced by young people, particularly in context of poverty and marginalization. I have a commitment to social justice, looking at the intersections of social and spatial inequalities with age, gender, and lived experience.

Another really important aspect to me is that research with young people should be participatory and in particular, have spent a lot of time developing co-produced research with young people and their communities of practice, undertaking research that’s both relevant to practitioners, and also shaping policy and practice at various scales.

Helen Manchester: 10:57

My name is Helen Manchester and I am a professor in participatory sociodigital futures at the University of Bristol. I am an interdisciplinary researcher. So I’m interested in participatory and creative research methods.

And I started out really as a teacher in inner city schools in Manchester, worked in those schools for about eight years. And then got into research a bit later in life. I guess, after that.

I did a PhD looking at the how people learn to make community media that represents, or re-presents their communities in different ways. And I’ve been now working at the University of Bristol for 10 years developing my research with communities at the margins, trying to counter inequalities and thinking about questions of social justice.

I think it can feel there is a feminist culture in academia, between academics and other contributors to research. I think that’s especially the case often in relationships between researchers and people who they’re researching with, or researching on very often, as is the case.

And I also think within the university, it can be really difficult to challenge the hierarchical infrastructures. You know, and even things like the University of Bristol is on the top of a hill. So symbolically, it’s kind of placed at the top of the city. And it feels like some, and it’s in a posh area of the city where people don’t necessarily always come. So there are real issues there, about how we see the university and the role of the university, in the city and in society.

So for me, there’s a real politics to knowledge production, that we really need to be considering all the time when we’re doing our research, to think about our own position as researchers and our relationship to and with other people within the city.

The Connecting Through Culture As We Age project is funded by UK research innovation, and it is a three year project where we are working with disabled socioeconomically and racially minoritized older adults who are aged between 60 and 75.

So we called them next gen older adults. And we’re working with them to understand their participation in arts and culture, and to understand their sort of lived experiences of digital culture and social connection.

And the whole aim of the project is to co-design with the older adults themselves digital cultural products that might be able to increase their sense of social connection, and sense of wellbeing as well. I think the really important thing about the project is that often when products or digital products are being designed for older people, they’re designed very often by young white men in labs.

And so we’re trying to shift that to be the older people who the products are for, at the centre of the design process.

And we’re finding that so far, that’s working out really well for the older adults. They are telling us that they’re feeling really empowered by the process that there’s a lot of, they come across a lot of ageism in their everyday He lives and that it this feels like a different kind of space where they’re actually valued for what they bring and for their lifelong experiences that they bring to the, to the project. As well as their experiences of being older now.

And I think that artists and creatives are also finding that input really helpful along the way in order to design for that particular group.

I guess in terms of working with communities at the margins, I think it’s really important that we are able to recognize the different expertise and knowledges that people bring to research as well.

And recognize that, as academics, we definitely don’t have all the answers. And we don’t have all the experiences that that we need in order to develop really robust qualitative research.

So I would say that we need, we really need a variety and very diverse knowledge and expertise in order to make sense of the world around us, which is really what I’m definitely trying to do as an academic and a researcher.

And the other thing I would say is that in in my research, I would never speak about research subjects. So rather than doing research to communities, we would always be trying to work with communities to conduct their research.

So rather than think about research subjects, or even necessarily research participants, we very much try to work alongside people with lived experience as collaborators, and as far as possible, depending on funding and all the rest of it, as equal collaborators as much as possible, whilst also recognizing the differences and the different privileges that we have.

So we might call people that we work with in communities at the margins co researchers. We might call them co experts, or collaborators, rather than research subjects.

Richard Holliman: 17:31

It’s interesting, because you’re doing this series called Team Science. So it’s really about how you conceptualize that team. If you just think of it as an academic team, with support staff, then you go down one route.

If you think of it as much more a distributed set of experts who are all contributing, then you go down a slightly different route. And that’s the route I’ve gone down. And I think starting from that premise is incredibly powerful for the individuals you work with. It empowers them, in ways I think, is incredibly useful for the work, it often takes a bit of time, because people have to learn to trust you and think that you are that kind of academic.

So it takes some pretty challenging conversations sometimes at the start of the project. And it’s simple things for me.

So I would always start a project by saying, “We will write this up together.”

That’s a really simple thing to say. It’s a simple principle at the start of the project. If you contribute to this, your names is on the paper. And that then starts to obviously start the conversation with all the other aspects of the work.

But just recognizing people for their contributions, not taking credit for other people’s work is pretty straightforward, as far as I can say. And that’s really the nature of good leadership, good academic leadership.

But it’s not often the way that good academic leadership is credited. So there is a problem in the system.

One of the things we did at the Open University a few years ago was change our promotion criteria. And probably the most important criteria in that work in that EU new set of criteria is around collegiality and support for others. If you start from that kind of premise, you won’t be too far off at the end of the project.

Lorraine van Blerk: 19:28

In relation to young people I think we have to be recognizing that they are the experts in their own lives. And so that’s part of the way in which we give them recognition.

But I think another way in which we give recognition is through working together and doing collaborative research.

So this idea of co-producing research with young people helps to shape the research in ways that we may not have thought of, or have even considered to be important, but it’s also helping to understand what’s really important to those participants.

And so we should certainly be giving them recognition in relation to their expertise, and how how they should be engaged in research throughout the whole research process, really, from inception, through to impact.

And I think that’s something that I’ve been focusing on, particularly with the Growing up on the Streets researchers how, how do we make sure that, that young people are involved in the research design, in the data collection, but more recently thinking about the analysis of data, the impact of data, and working together with young people in writing.

And so these are some of the things that we’ve been doing more recently coming out of growing up on the streets.

Helen Manchester: 21:00

Yeah, so it’s really important when we’re working with co-researchers, that we also can credit the involvement that they have in the project.

So whenever we communicate about the Connecting Through Culture, As We Age project, for instance, we will always acknowledge the roles that co-researchers have played in that in that project.

But I guess we’re also always looking for different kinds of outputs and outcomes from the research.

And we often will ask our co researchers what they think would be outcomes or outputs that might be useful from a research project. Useful for them useful for their communities, useful beyond their communities, potentially, as well, to sort of represent themselves, I guess, in different ways

So I think science would really benefit from wider acknowledgement of different communities and their involvement in research. From my perspective, I think research is about understanding the world in all its complexity.

And I don’t think as researchers we can necessarily do that, unless we are working with and alongside others.

I think, politically, it’s really important that we are working with, to bring different kinds of publics into the research conversation.

I think, as I said before, to try and tackle inequalities, nurture alternatives, reconstruct and think about different kinds of possible futures, and maybe also coming back to that sense of solidarity, sense of care, a sense of compassion for others, that we might be able to influence through our role as researchers.

Simon Baker: 23:05

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Team Science podcast.

I’m Simon Baker, chief editor at Nature Index. The producer was Dom Byrne. Next up, we’ll hear how Western Sydney University a sponsor of this series is helping to champion team science.

Caris Bizzaca 23:29:I’m Caris Bizzaca and welcome to this podcast series from Western Sydney University. Over this six-episode series I’ll be introducing you to some incredible research taking place – from a million-dollar fungi project that’s helping combat climate change, to surveys into maternity-care treatment, to creating electric vehicles for women in rural African communities, and more. These projects are just a handful of those that entered the 2022 and 2023 Research Impact Competition, run by Western Sydney University in Australia.

There’s also something else they have in common: they each speak to a Sustainable Development Goal or SDG – a list of 17 goals created by the United Nations which tackle global issues including poverty, hunger, climate change, gender inequality and access to education.

So how do we identify problems and then the path forward? Well, through research. And this research is happening at universities across the globe, who are graded in the annual Times Higher Education Impact rankings on their commitment to the SDGs. This is significant because out of 1,700 universities in the world, Western Sydney University ranked number one overall for the past two years. And if we drill down into the SDGs it excelled in, it came first for the goals Gender Equality, Partnership for the Goals, and Responsible Consumption and Production. For more information about Sustainable Development Goals you can visit sdgs.un.org and keep listening, as the researchers across this series will talk to how their projects contribute to positive change.

Before we dive in, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the custodians of the lands where Western Sydney University campuses are located, and pay respect to the peoples of the Dharug, Tharawal, Eora and Wiradjuri nations. I pay my respect to elders past and present. Always was, always will be.

Now, let’s hear from some of the researchers from Western Sydney University’s Research Impact Competition.

Dr Hazel Keedle 25:36

One of the other things that came out of our survey, and this paper’s currently under review, is we asked women, if you were to have another pregnancy, what would you do differently? And it was a really powerful question. This was the question where we had the largest amount of open text comments, with over six and a half thousand women leaving a comment about what they would do differently.

Caris Bizzaca 25:55

That’s Dr Hazel Keedle, a senior lecturer of midwifery at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University, and the lead researcher on the Birth Experience Study. In the 2023 Research Impact Competition, Dr Keedle was runner-up for her work looking at women’s experiences of obstetric violence in Australia – a term defined as any act where a healthcare worker causes harm during pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum. This research first began several years ago when the producers of the 2020 documentary Birth Time got in contact.

Dr Hazel Keedle 26:30

When their film was getting ready for release, they reached out to us as researchers. And they were really interested in, you know, could there be a survey that went along at the same time? We then contacted maternity consumer organisations across Australia, and we got representatives from ten to come on board and be part of our consumer reference group. And they helped us design the survey, decide which questions were going to be in there, pilot-test the survey, and then they’ve been part of the whole research process. It’s absolutely a co-designed research project. The survey was then out for nine months in 2021 and resulted in nearly 9,000 completed responses across Australia, which makes it the largest ever maternity-experiences survey done in Australia. And now we’re in data-analysis phase. We’ve had two papers published. We’ve got another two or three under review. And then last year we decided to reach out to any research groups across the globe to see if they would be interested in also doing our surveys. So we’ve now got nine other research groups on every continent using our survey and working with us, and we’re now called the Birth Experience Study International Collaboration.

Caris Bizzaca 27:44

Dr Keedle says the survey explores the interactions between women and their healthcare providers.

Dr Hazel Keedle 27:50

We also had some questions that specifically asked about experiences of birth trauma and the experiences of obstetric violence, which had never been asked in a survey in Australia before, which is the mistreatment of women by healthcare providers during that perinatal period. We also had a validated tool in there called the mistreatment scale, which looks at different forms of mistreatment and whether or not the women experienced it, plus also respectful care. We had a measure in there from Canada that looks at the level of respectful care. So we found that more than one in ten women in the survey across Australia experienced obstetric violence. And then we asked them if they would like to leave a comment. And we did a qualitative content analysis on those comments.

Caris Bizzaca 28:34

So far, two papers have been published on the research, but there have been challenges in getting everyone in the health industry on board with the findings.

Dr Hazel Keedle 28:42

Because it can feel quite polarising when we’re saying that healthcare providers are maybe not doing the right thing. And I’m a health-care provider myself. I spent many years as a nurse and then as a midwife, clinically, in all different models of care. And so I know for a fact that our healthcare providers don’t go into their jobs with the aim to mistreat women and their families. And so often they can be quite offended and upset that maybe we are attacking these people that are doing the right thing. But there’s always room for growth and often the experiences of women were due to being treated like a number in the system, by not getting that individualized, personalized care, which can make the difference. And so, trying to spotlight what it’s like for women, but then actually what we need to fix in our system and what models of care do work. And certainly across our study, we were able to compare the rates of trauma and birth trauma and obstetric violence across different models of care and identify where it does work. And that is when they have the same midwife or doctor throughout the entire continuity-of-care experience, because then that person does know them really well and they’re less likely to experience trauma and obstetric violence. So that is something that we highlight. We are just trying to bring us all together to look at what the systemic issues are and how to address them.

Caris Bizzaca 30:09

The SDGs that this research contributes to are Goal 3 – Good Health and Well-being – and Goal 5 – Gender Equality.

Dr Hazel Keedle 30:17

So looking at the health of the nation, but also equity. Obstetric violence has been recognised by the United Nations as a form of gendered violence because it disproportionately impacts women who are pregnant and then have babies. So that is a part of equality and equitable care, in that fact that this is happening and is a form of gendered violence. And when we look at it through a systemic view to what is going on in the healthcare systems that we have, there’s often an influence of patriarchy and power. And women who are accessing this care are really right down at the bottom of that. But also the general health, we know that women who have a traumatic birth and experience of obstetric violence are more likely to have a not great postnatal time and increased mental-health issues such as postnatal depression, anxiety and PTSD. And this significantly impacts that woman and their family. And there’s also some research being done around Australia that is looking at, you know, maybe there’s also another diagnosis of birth trauma that doesn’t go all the way through to depression, anxiety or PTSD. That’s on its own. And that’s something that we are supporting our research to do as well, because the impacts this has is on the woman and her ability to be able to care for the baby and to care for her family in the best way for her.

Caris Bizzaca 31:41

Dr Keedle talked about two papers that have been published from the research, and the second of these, which was released in December 2022, is contributing to potential policy changes.

Dr Hazel Keedle 31:53

The maternity consumer organisations that have been involved with the project, they have been reaching out to politicians and policy makers to try and get their voices heard about what is happening. And we’ve been able to be involved as researchers, and now we currently have the first ever New South Wales Upper House inquiry into birth trauma. And myself and my research team have been part of that process. We’ve met with the politicians, we’ve met with the consumer groups, we’ve met with human-rights lawyers, and we’ve helped put together the terms of reference and how the inquiry’s going to look.

Caris Bizzaca 32:30

After submissions for the inquiry close, there will then be hearings and then the Select Committee will put forward recommendations.

Dr Hazel Keedle 32:37

This is the first time this has ever occurred and it’s certainly been a collaboration between our research projects and our findings and the consumer groups in Australia.

Caris Bizzaca 32:48

As for next steps, Dr Keedle is excited about the survey going global with the Birth Experience Study International Collaboration, which was not part of their initial plans.

Dr Hazel Keedle 32:58

It came from this real spirit of wanting to share what we’ve learned from this research journey and this really good survey that was designed with consumers, and getting that out across the world. And we now have research groups in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Taiwan, Japan, China, Brazil and Zambia. And we work together, we meet monthly, we exchange our skills because we’ve all got research skills in different areas. And I was saying in a meeting with our Zambian researchers who have just joined that we’re also sharing our time because it takes a lot of time to do research. But we’re actually going to be able to bring this data together from an international perspective. So not only will we be able to talk about what women are experiencing in Australia, that we can say what women are experiencing across the world in all these different countries. So we’ll end up with this very big data set of women’s experiences of maternity care that I really hope will have an have an impact on the international level as well.

Caris Bizzaca 34:03

That was Dr Hazel Keedle, the runner up of the 2023 Research Impact Competition at Western Sydney University. Join us for the next episode to find out more about the research being undertaken in Australia and its real-world impact, both now and into the future.

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