Community Academic Research Partnership in Digital Contexts: Opportunities, Limitations, and New Ways to Promote Mutual Benefit

Report by Liat Racin and Eric Gordon: “It’s widely accepted that community-academic collaborations have the potential to involve more of the people and places that a community values as well as address the concerns of the very constituents that community-based organizations care for. Just how to involve them and ensure their benefit remains highly controversial in the digital age. This report provides an overview of the concerns, values, and the roles of digital data and communications in community-academic research partnerships from the perspectives of Community Partner Organizations (CPOs) in Boston, Massachusetts. It can serve as a resource for researchers and academic organizations seeking to better understand the position and sentiments of their community partners, and ways in which to utilize digital technology to address conflicting notions on what defines ‘good’ research as well as the power imbalances that may exist between all involved participants. As research involves community members and agencies more closely, it’s commonly assumed that the likelihood of CPOs accepting and endorsing a projects’ or programs’ outcomes increases if they perceive that the research itself is credible and has direct beneficial application.

Our research is informed by informal discussions with participants of events and workshops organized by both the Boston Civic Media Consortium and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College between 2015-2016. These events are free to the public and were attended by both CPOs and academics from various fields and interest positions. We also conducted interviews with 20 CPO representatives in the Greater Boston region who were currently or had recently engaged in academic research partnerships. These representatives presented a diverse mix of experiences and were not disproportionately associated with any one community issue. The interview protocol consisted of 15 questions that explored issues related to the benefits, challenges, structure and outcomes of their academic collaborations. It also included questions about the nature and processes of data management. Our goal was to uncover patterns of belief in the roles, values, and concerns of CPO representatives in partnerships, focusing on how they understand and assign value to digital data and technology.

Unfortunately, the growing use and dependence on digital tools and technology in our modern-day research context has failed to inspire in-depth analysis on the influences of ‘the digital’ in community-engaged social research, such as how data is produced, used, and disseminated by community members and agencies. This gap exists despite the growing proliferation of digital technologies and born-digital data in the work of both social researchers and community groups (Wright, 2005; Thompson et al., 2003; Walther and Boyd 2002). To address this gap and identify the discourses about what defines ‘good’ research processes, we ask: “To what extent do community-academic partnerships meet the expectations of community groups?” And, “what are the main challenges of CPO representatives when they collaboratively generate and exchange knowledge with particular regard to the design, access and (re)use of digital data?”…(More)”.