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23/07/2014

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Public collaboration in PhDs

Both natural and social science research is increasingly done in collaboration with non-academic organisations. Here, Wendy Barnaby recounts one example; David James explores the benefits for the social sciences, and Sarah Banks alerts us to the ethical principles that should be built in to all collaborations.

Body image as the students see it

Alannah Hyett was 14 in 2012 when her class at Newent Community School in Gloucestershire did six sessions on body image. ‘One activity was about identifying people in your life who you find inspiring but we weren’t allowed to focus on their physical appearance,’ she recalled.  ‘I put my mum. She’s not perfect and she’s always going on about how she needs to lose weight.  It was kind of good for most people.  It’s more to do with personality rather than body shape.’

Alannah Hyett was 14 in 2012 when her class at Newent Community School in Gloucestershire did six sessions on body image. ‘One activity was about identifying people in your life who you find inspiring but we weren’t allowed to focus on their physical appearance,’ she recalled.  ‘I put my mum. She’s not perfect and she’s always going on about how she needs to lose weight.  It was kind of good for most people.  It’s more to do with personality rather than body shape.’

New perspective

The sessions approached the sensitive subject of body image from a new perspective, helping the pupils to be confident about their bodies and how they look.  They were designed by Chantelle Bailey as part of her PhD in the Department of Psychology at the University of the West of England. 

She wanted to create a new way for schools to tackle body image, to reduce adolescents’ dissatisfaction with their bodies and their extreme attempts to lose weight or gain muscles to conform with current gender stereotypes of perfection. 

‘I discovered that that only a handful of researchers had consulted with students or teachers about their requirements for school body image interventions and none had effectively led on to informing the design of a new intervention,’ said Chantelle.  ‘Therefore I proposed to my supervisor that I wanted to undertake consultations with school students and teachers.’

Startling

Chantelle interviewed teachers and ran focus groups amongst students. What she found startled her: ‘Young people conceptualise body image in a very different way to what is currently depicted in the body image literature.

‘Contrary to what is usually illustrated, the concept of “positive body image” or “feeling good about your body” fails to exist among many young people aged 13-16 years. Instead, they conceive that you are either unhappy about your body (which is the norm) or you are vain or self-absorbed about your appearance. Consequently any existing body image intervention which aimed to promote positive body image is futile because students do not wish to appear vain or self-absorbed to their peers.’

The sessions seem to have had the desired effect.  ‘I have a friend who did a lot of kickboxing,’ said Alannah. ‘She’s always going on about how her legs are fat and we’re always telling her she’s got nothing to worry about. The lessons made her feel more positive.’

Collaboration in a cold climate

Doctoral programmes are the means whereby we grow the next generation of leading social scientists, and the core business of the ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Centre (DTC).  In addition to encouraging students to take up internships, the DTC sets up collaborative arrangements with organisations in the public, private and third sector for at least some of its students.

Doctoral programmes are the means whereby we grow the next generation of leading social scientists, and the core business of the ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Centre (DTC).  In addition to encouraging students to take up internships, the DTC sets up collaborative arrangements with organisations in the public, private and third sector for at least some of its students.

Some arrangements involve co-funding whilst others are purely ‘in kind’.  Yet in an economic recession collaborative arrangements are difficult to initiate and sometimes difficult to sustain.  Are they worth the effort? What do they give us? How do we make them work well?

Worth the effort

Our experience suggests that collaborative arrangements are worth the effort and can be very productive for both the student and the partner organisation.

Students gain a great deal from seeing at first hand how research-based knowledge interacts with other kinds of knowledge in a public, private or third sector organisation. The culture may involve strong values and interests, perhaps to do with public service, or profitability, or reputation, or accountability or even just survival.

Regular contact of this kind is also likely to challenge and grow a researcher’s capacity to communicate with a range of audiences, or develop their facility to work with policymakers or practitioners.

Benefits for partners

More difficult to sum up are the benefits for non-academic organisations. Why should they invest time, money or energy in supporting a PhD student, not least in a recession?  For a few, it is ‘bigger picture thinking’, or a belief that research in their field may well signal better policy, systems or outcomes for clients, citizens or consumers. 

Others’ interests are more specific or instrumental: a bank co-funding a PhD on aversion to debt, the outcomes of which may lead to greater profitability; a charity seeking a clearer knowledge of where its efforts are most effectiveCo-sponsorship of a PhD will usually be cheaper than commissioning a piece of private research, but it will come with a much longer timescale and perhaps extra risks around intellectual property and commercial sensitivity. 

It is the stock in trade of social scientists to look critically at established practices and claims, at unintended consequences, at ‘what goes without saying’. Successful collaborations rely crucially on acknowledging and discussing such issues in supervision. By the same token, it is important to avoid the simplistic idea that collaboration with non-academic organisations during a PhD is a way of keeping its substance and method more ‘real’: the benefits are more subtle and complex than that.

Ethical issues in building public engagement into PhDs

For science PhD students, co-produced research projects with businesses, public bodies or large NGOs are not unusual. Many of the ethical and legal issues of ownership of data and findings, commercial secrecy and dangers of bias are well-rehearsed and form the basis of collaboration agreements at the start of projects.

For science PhD students, co-produced research projects with businesses, public bodies or large NGOs are not unusual. Many of the ethical and legal issues of ownership of data and findings, commercial secrecy and dangers of bias are well-rehearsed and form the basis of collaboration agreements at the start of projects.

However, public engagement, which may entail involvement of individuals or small community-based groups and organisations from outside the university, may be less familiar. Such people/groups range from those that have some stake or expertise in the research topic, to those with no direct interest/expertise.

Similarly, there are many types of engagement, from consulting ‘publics’ at the design or dissemination stage, to full-blown co-produced research projects involving non-academics in the design, process, analysis and dissemination of the research.

Ethical guidelines

A group of academic researchers and members of community organisations from different disciplines in the UK recently produced a set of ethical guidelines and case studies for ‘community-based participatory research’ (CBPR). 

We focused on research that is relevant to and useful for communities of place and interest (e.g. villages affected by flooding; the Permaculture Association), whose members have active involvement in several stages of the research in partnership with PhD students/research teams/university departments.

Ethical concerns

In scientific research, key features of ethical practice include ensuring that data are not falsified or used in misleading ways, that ideas and findings are not plagiarised and that people and animals are not unduly harmed in the research process.

Public engagement in scientific research inevitably widens the focus of ethical concerns to include not just questions of harm to the people involved, but also the extent to which they are genuinely research partners and have degrees of control over the research process and outcomes.

Ethical principles

We identified several ethical principles that we felt should underpin CBPR and produced guidelines for university researchers and community partners to consider when developing participatory research. 

The most important issue to consider at the start is what each party wants from the collaboration and how it might work. Where does power and responsibility lie? What financial recompense and training are available? If members of community organisations are to collect data (for example in a citizen science project, involving members of the Permaculture Association collecting data on vegetables they are growing), how will they be trained, supported and what commitment do they have to ensuring the quality of the data?

The key principles for CBPR are mutual respect, equality and inclusion, democratic participation, active learning, making a difference, collective action and personal integrity.  The full text, case studies and short films can be found on the website.

Wendy Barnaby
Wendy Barnaby is the Editor of People & Science
Professor David James
David James is Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University and Director of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Wales Doctoral Training Centre. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Sarah Banks
Sarah Banks is Professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University, UK.
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