Ethics and Community Engagement
With respect to traditional research, ethics discussions are generally limited to the protection of the rights and welfare of individual participants involved in research projects. Institutions receiving federal funding for research are required to have Institutional Review Boards (IRB), which are tasked with approving, monitoring and reviewing any research involving human participants. While research that engages communities is also subject to the IRB process, there are additional ethical standards and expectations that need to be considered and addressed. As the purpose of community engagement reflects an orientation to social change, the ethical considerations must be applied to the community as a whole, in addition to its individual members.
One of the primary ethical questions in community engagement is who owns the data or knowledge that is generated by the collaborative effort. Unlike traditional research where the researcher and the funder own the data, in community engagement settings, the community has a stake in the ownership of the knowledge or data that is produced. That shared ownership means that university researchers need to attend to the following principles:
- Respect community knowledge. In reporting on project activities, acknowledge community contributions and the source of wisdom.
- Share the data that is generated with the community. This includes activities such as member checking (giving the participants a chance to review the data and participate in the analysis or meaning making) and providing them with the data in a form they can access (are there literacy, language or technology barriers?) Seek guidance from your community contacts in how to do this most appropriately.
- Be up front about where and how that data will be shared. If you plan to present the information at a conference or write a paper for publication, let them know and give them an opportunity to review such items in advance.
- Involve them in the sharing. Co-writing and co-presenting with communities is a valuable way to engage them in further learning and empowerment.
Community partners are to be considered first among equals (Blumenthal, 2006). As such, they should be accorded primacy in making decisions about research agendas, appropriate methods to apply in their context, and the use of the results or findings. A helpful tool to ensure ethical standards are understood by all stakeholders is a statement of shared principles (Blumenthal, 2006; Israel et al., 2013). A statement of shared principles is a document developed jointly by stakeholders who agree to abide by a set of commonly held ideals. Principles may include ideas such as "strictly enforcing individual and community informed consent, research process and outcomes should benefit the community, and productive partnerships between researcher and community members should be encouraged to last beyond the initial project" (Blumenthal, 2006, p.4).
Some communities that you may work with may have had prior negative experiences in working with researchers. It is not uncommon for communities to be the focus of research, but not the beneficiaries. When it's your turn to be a community researcher, you have an opportunity to heal this past injustice. It is your opportunity to demonstrate the level of ethical behavior that community participants should expect from those who follow you. This path involves honesty, authenticity, and transparency. In short, it is the professional behavior and common courtesy that one should expect in any situation. Treat others how you want to be treated.