Spotlight Center on HIV Prevention Today

What to Ask When Researchers Come Knocking

Spring 2013

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man with question mark in cartoon bubble

Wondering about the researcher who recently called you about a research partnership? To stay relevant and effective, organizations that serve people living with and at risk for HIV and hepatitis C must demonstrate the benefits of their programs and services and stay ahead of their clients' changing needs. However, research partnerships require considerable discussion and planning to meet everyone's needs. How will you decide if a partnership is worthwhile? Here are eight questions to ask when researchers come knocking:

1. What Is the Proposed Research Question?

Ask the researcher about what they want to study and the questions they would ask. Are you interested in these same questions and would the answers be of benefit to your organization? Research questions can often be negotiated and adapted to meet various needs and interests. Some research projects will help you and your organization plan or evaluate your programs and understand any changes in your community; other projects may provide evidence for policy changes that will benefit your clients. Understanding what the researcher is thinking of studying, and what it means for your organization will help make your decision easier.

2. How Do You Plan to Approach the Research?

Ask the researcher to tell you about the model of research she plans to use. The more you know about how she plans to approach it -- the methodology and what steps will be taken to ensure it is done in an ethical manner -- the more informed your decision will be.


Not all research methodologies are alike. Some are based on a traditional, investigator-driven model, some take a community-based approach, while others fall somewhere in between. The traditional investigator-driven model typically involves the researcher determining the subject of inquiry and how they will approach the study. In this case, your organization's role may be solely to allow the researchers access to the agency and clients for research purposes. By contrast, community-based research involves community members working closely with researchers on all aspects of the project -- setting goals, developing the research questions and study design, collecting and analyzing data, and disseminating findings. For some community-based organizations (CBOs), partnering with a researcher in this way can be a great opportunity to build their staff and clients' capacity and for their clients' voices to be heard. For others, this level of involvement may not be possible or desirable given other priorities.

Deciding what type of research you are comfortable supporting will help determine whether you want to partner with the researcher. But remember to also ask yourself whether your organization's needs and resources are in line with those of the research project.

You may also want to discuss what steps will be taken to ensure the work is done in an ethical manner. What ethical principles will guide the project? How will the benefits be maximized and potential harms minimized? How will the privacy and confidentiality of participants be ensured? How will you ensure that clients feel comfortable refusing to participate in the research, that they won't have to worry that this could affect the services they use?

You may want to familiarize yourself with some ethical frameworks advanced by communities you will be working with, such as:

  • Greater involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS (GIPA) -- an internationally recognized principle that promotes the involvement of people living with and affected by HIV, in research, programming and evaluation.
  • OCAP (ownership, control, access and possession) -- a set of principles that promotes the leadership and self-determination of Aboriginal communities in research as well as the collective ownership of information.
  • "Nothing about us without us" -- a commitment to the meaningful involvement of people who use illegal drugs in Canada's response to HIV, hepatitis C and injection drug use.

3. What Decision-Making Process Will Be Used for This Project?

Research involves many decisions -- from what the research question will be to who will present the findings and how. Discuss with the researcher who will be included in making decisions and what decision-making model he or she wants to use for the project: consensus (everyone agrees on the decision) or majority rules (proceed with whatever choice is most popular). Make sure that you are comfortable with the decision-making model from the get-go.

Writing "terms of reference" (or a memorandum of understanding) can be helpful to establish lines of communication and to document how decisions will be made.

4. What Level of Involvement Do You Foresee for Our Organization's Staff Members and Clients?

Establishing expectations, roles and responsibilities from the beginning will go a long way to ensuring a positive partnership. To get the most out of a potential collaboration and avoid problems later, ask the researcher what level of involvement she foresees for you, your co-workers and clients. You'll want a clear understanding of how you will manage your current commitments along with any new ones associated with the project. And the researcher will benefit from a clear sense of the workload and potential level of commitment that you and your co-workers can offer.

You might ask some of the following questions to determine how much will be expected from your organization and when:

  • Will we be asked to contribute to the design of the project (including its objectives and methods) and/or to analyzing and disseminating findings?
  • Will my co-workers and I be needed for research tasks and for how long? Will we be compensated? To whom will we report? Will external research staff come to work onsite? If so, to whom will they report?
  • Will our clients be recruited and by whom? How? Will they be compensated?
  • Will staff and clients have opportunities to develop their research skills?

You may also want to get a sense of the researcher's other commitments. If she is working on six other studies and teaching four courses, will she have a coordinator assigned to the project being pitched? If the project is being conducted at your agency and something goes wrong, will she be available to intervene? 

5. What Resources Do You Foresee Coming From My Organization?

Research requires resources: money, staffing and space. Research funding (e.g., from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) will cover most costs but there may be additional expenses that are not covered. Determine early on what in-kind resources, if any, your organization would be expected to contribute.

Some research funding offers investigators who work for CBOs payment for their time. If the research funding does not offer such financing, staff from your organization may need to take on unpaid work to see the project through to completion.

You might want to ask questions such as these to find out how funds will be distributed and to whom:

  • What expenses does the funder allow for in the budget and what would not be covered? Who would cover these costs?
  • How much travel/transportation money is allowed and who will have access to it?
  • If needed, can equipment (such as computers and printers) be purchased? And to whom will the equipment belong once the project is completed?
  • Can funds be set aside to support participants (for example, for food, honoraria, transportation)?
  • Can funds be used to reimburse staff for their time worked on the project?

Universities usually manage research funds but many organizations also qualify to hold funds. Ask who will manage the research funds and if any monies need to be transferred to your organization. If funds need to be transferred, figure out what would be involved for your organization and the researchers to transfer and/or receive funds. You will want to avoid a situation where you are left for long periods of time with expenses that have not been reimbursed. Before agreeing to the project, make sure you are comfortable with what the research monies will cover and who will hold the funds.  

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication Prevention in Focus: Spotlight on Programming and Research. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.

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