Research Funder Required Research Partnerships: A Qualitative Inquiry

Sibbald, S. L., Tetroe, J. & Graham, I.D. (2014). Research funder required research partnerships: A qualitative inquiry. Implementation Science,9(176), doi:10.1186/s13012-014-0176-y.
Background: Researchers and funding agencies are increasingly showing interest in the application of research findings and focusing attention on engagement of knowledge-users in the research process as a means of increasing the uptake of research findings. The expectation is that research findings derived from these researcher-knowledge-user partnerships will be more readily applied when they became available. The objective of this study was to investigate the experiences, perceived barriers, successes, and opinions of researchers and knowledge-users funded under the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s integrated Knowledge Translation funding opportunities for a better understanding of these collaborations.
Methods: Participants, both researchers and knowledge-users, completed an online survey followed by an individual semi-structured phone interview supporting a mixed methods study. The interviews were analyzed qualitatively using a modified grounded theory approach.
Results: Survey analysis identified three major partnership types: token, asymmetric, and egalitarian. Interview analysis revealed trends in perceived barriers and successes directly related to the partnership formation and style. While all partnerships experienced barriers, token partnerships had the most challenges and general poor perception of partnerships. The majority of respondents found that common goals and equality in partnerships did not remove barriers but increased participants’ ability to look for solutions.

Conclusions: We learned of effective mechanisms and strategies used by researchers and knowledge-users for mitigating barriers when collaborating. Funders could take a larger role in helping facilitate, nurture, and sustain the partnerships to which they award grants.
This article concerns the critical roles that research partners play in translation of research results into impacts felt beyond the academy. The article examines these roles as a function of research funding agencies requiring partners to be engaged in the research process. This is particularly timely as many research funding programs (and almost all new funding programs) in Canada and beyond now require partnerships with organizations who can partner in the research and also contribute cash and in kind resources. But more importantly these research partnering organizations are also critically involved in the translation of research into new policies, practices, products, processes and services. This is because, in general, researchers:

  • Don’t make and sell products, our industry partners do
  • Don’t develop public policies, our government partners do
  • Don’t deliver social services, our community partners do

Therefore, if researchers wish their research to have an impact on citizens they need to collaborate with private, public and non-profit sector organizations that will produce new products, policies and services that then create benefits for those citizens.
The authors start out their paper stating exactly this. “Researchers and funding agencies are increasingly showing interest in the application of research findings and focusing attention on engagement of knowledge-users in the research process as a means of increasing the uptake of research findings.” Uptake is that critical moment when research leaves the academic setting and is taken up by a non-academic partner organization seeking to use that research to inform product, policy and service decisions.
To better understand the researcher-partner partnership and its impacts on knowledge translation the authors (two of whom are from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research funding agency) undertook a literature review, a survey and qualitative interviews. They asked four specific questions:

  1. what types of experiences in partnering relationships occur with integrated KT (iKT) grants?
  2. what are the perceived barriers to partnerships?
  3. what leads to successful partnerships?
  4. what is the perceived impact of partnered research?

The literature review identified ten dominant barriers to successful partnerships, including:

  1. inadequate resources
  2. concerns about the quality of the research
  3. compatibility of problem solving styles among partners
  4. level of trust between partners
  5. turnover
  6. power and status imbalances between researchers and knowledge-users
  7. knowledge and skill imbalances among partners
  8. competing agendas between researchers and knowledge-users
  9. differences in availability and contributions
  10. lacking financial or personal incentives for conducting partnership research

The research then identified three types of research partnerships:
Egalitarian partnerships – those that were more equal and participatory in nature, and involvement in the partnership was congruent or symbiotic (31%)
Asymmetric relationship – defined as researcher lead with some knowledge-user engagement. Nearly all participants in asymmetric partnerships remained very positive about the partnership process and outcomes despite acknowledging the challenges (55%)
Seven (14%) participants were part of a token partnership, or one that was very researcher dominant. Of these seven, five reported the partnership as being extremely unfavorable.
Clearly token partnerships are to be avoided while egalitarian partnerships have the greatest potential to support successful iKT.
The authors identified that some partnerships arose out of established relationships and applying for funding was a natural next step in the growth of the partnership. Importantly, “participants’ negative experiences were often a result of either a poorly defined partnership (i.e., what the partnership is, will be, or should be) or poorly defined roles within the partnership”. What the article doesn’t describe is a partnership that arose out of knowledge brokering where an intermediary connects a researcher and a partner around shared interests and complementary expertise.
Apart from the ten challenges identified above the authors identify three common factors that enable the formation of partnerships:

  • An acknowledged need
  • Existing infrastructures
  • Appropriate timing

Impacts from partnered research included:

  • Impact as cultural change: “bridging the divide between academic research and the real world pf policy, practice, and the community
  • Impact as more relevant research: participation in the grant actually formalized the partnership and created conditions for impact. Also see a previous journal club that observed that working in partnership can create greater confidence in data collection. In that journal club, working in partnership “ultimately improved the quality of my access to participants and, as a result, the quality of my data.”
  • Impact as research uptake: “Participants who felt partners were engaged from the outset of the project (including proposal writing and the study design phase) also talked about knowledge-users feeling they had more ownership of the results and uptake”. This is important as mentioned above because uptake is a necessary precursor to impact.
  • Impact as partnership sustainability

In conclusion, “both feel that the benefits of partnerships outweigh the costs and barriers. Within this new environment there has been discussion around the potential for “genuine” collaboration in required partnerships. For our participants, collaborations were most often genuine. However, some felt that the forced nature of the partnerships was not conducive to true collaborative research and that it was more of a “game”, “not based on the principles of meaningful collaboration”. This question of genuine partnerships has been frequently discussed within the context of community based research. This raises questions of power differentials between researchers and partner organizations with the assumption being that genuine partnerships help to balance power in the relationship. For more on genuine partnerships see Dostilio who wrote about “democratic partnerships” [Dostilio, L.D. (2014). Democratically engaged community-university partnerships: Reciprocal determinants of democratically oriented roles and processes. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 18(4), 235-244.]
Questions for brokers:

  1. Of the 10 barriers identified in the literature which would you prioritize as the top three that create the most critical barriers to effective partnership?
  2. Thinking of research uptake as a necessary precursor for research impact, what about the situation when a health researcher is also a health practitioner? Are partner organizations needed to help translate research into clinical practice? Are partners needed to scale the innovation and implement the new clinical practice across multiple practice sites in multiple contexts?
  3. If knowledge brokering serves to create and support new research partnerships, which of the ten barriers identified might be more challenging when bringing together partners who have not previously worked together?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence and research on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.