How far does an emphasis on stakeholder engagement and co-production in research present a threat to academic identity and autonomy? A prospective study across five European countries.

Boaz, A., Borst, R., Kok, M. and O’Shea, A. (2021) How far does an emphasis on stakeholder engagement and co-production in research present a threat to academic identity and autonomy? A prospective study across five European countries. Res Eval. 21: 1-9 https://academic.oup.com/rev/advance-article/doi/10.1093/reseval/rvab013/6272492

This journal club is an abridged version of the longer review written by lead author Annette Boaz and published in the LSE Impact Blog on June 25, 2021 and excerpted with permission.

Abstract

There is a growing recognition that needs more to be done to ensure that research contributes to better health services and patient outcomes. Stakeholder engagement in research, including co-production, has been identified as a promising mechanism for improving the value, relevance and utilization of research. This article presents findings from a prospective study which explored the impact of stakeholder engagement in a 3-year European tobacco control research project. That research project aimed to engage stakeholders in the development, testing and dissemination of a return-on-investment tool across five EU countries (the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, Germany and the UK). The prospective study comprised interviews, observations and document review. The analysis focused on the extent to which the project team recognized, conceptualized and operationalized stakeholder engagement over the course of the research project. Stakeholder engagement in the European research project was conceptualized as a key feature of pre-designated spaces within their work programme. Over the course of the project, however, the tool development work and stakeholder engagement activities decoupled. While the modelling and tool development became more secluded, stakeholder engagement activities subtly transformed from co-production, to consultation, to something more recognizable as research participation. The contribution of this article is not to argue against the potential contribution of stakeholder engagement and co-production, but to show how even well-planned engagement activities can be diverted within the existing research funding and research production systems where non-research stakeholders remain at the margins and can even be seen as a threat to academic identify and autonomy.

First let’s focus on the title of the LSE Blog post instead of the journal article, “Lost in co-production: To enable true collaboration we need to nurture different academic identities”. This article is about academic identities and how they enable or work against authentic co-production.

Excerpts from the LSE Blog post

There is a growing recognition inside and outside of academia, that new ways of working are required to ensure research makes a difference. Stakeholder engagement in research, including co-production, is regularly presented as the essential mechanism for improving the value, relevance and utilisation of research across many disciplines. Over the course of her study a persistent pattern emerged of planned co-production activities slipping back into more conventional and extractive research relationships. ‘Co-production’ subtly transformed to consultation, and in some instances to the level of a participation whereby stakeholders simply completed surveys, generating data for subsequent analysis and publication. Whilst these returns to ‘normal’ working relationships with research participants can be linked to the constraints of the project, they also surface more fundamental challenges to stakeholder participation in knowledge production and use.

Although the research design reflects an aspirational shift towards a more co-produced model of knowledge production, academic norms and existing university structures and incentives continued to align with a more conventional practices of knowledge production as an academic pursuit. Participants in the study had fully internalised the importance of academic writing and grant writing as an integral part of their role. However, stakeholder engagement, and especially the planned co-production activities remained vulnerable to internal and external pressures.

This vulnerability of working with stakeholders has particular implications for the current promotion of co-production of knowledge.  A tendency to see involving stakeholders as a benign ‘add on’, or a stage in research design and methodologies that will enhance the quality of research misses the underlying challenge presented by stakeholder engagement and in particular by co-production. For co-production in particular, the approach is not merely a set of activities, but a fundamental and epistemologically different way of working from conventional knowledge production.

Questions for Brokers

  1. If stakeholder engagement and co-production are vulnerable to traditional methods of academic assessment what needs to change to reduce the vulnerability?
  2. Look up the Ladder of Citizen Participation. Where is authentic co-production on this ladder?
  3. The article is about academic identities. What is an academic identity and what academic identities have you seen that supports authentic co-production?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create online discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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