Advancement and Promotion for Researchers

For new investigators, the structure of and expectations for promotion and tenure (P&T) at academic institutions present multiple barriers toward engaging in CBPR-driven projects, particularly those using qualitative methods of inquiry. Traditional, discipline-driven academia can create an environment that is challenging, and sometimes even hostile, toward CBPR.15 A study published by Marrero et al.16 demonstrated that among the tenure and tenure-track faculty surveyed at three research universities, only 35% of faculty agreed or strongly agreed that community-engaged research was recognized and rewarded during the P&T process. Only 28% of surveyed faculty agreed or strongly agreed that the P&T process encourages publication in sources that disseminate community- engaged research, and 16% of faculty agreed or strongly agreed that members of the P&T committees have a broad understanding of community-engaged scholarship. Given this collective sentiment, junior faculty may be encouraged by senior mentors to hold off on engaging in CBPR until the stages of mid or late career. These challenges related to perceptions of CBPR importance and potential for recognition and reward are compounded by the challenges of engaging in qualitative research.

Qualitative research can be more time-consuming than quantitative research. in addition, the process of CBPR is time-consuming and often includes a “preresearch” period of community engagement where time is spent developing rapport before the official research process begins.17 For tenure-track faculty who are well aware of the ticking of the so-called tenure clock, time plays a significant factor when considering research approaches and designs. Completing research projects, obtaining extramural funding, and publishing a threshold number of manuscripts are all expected to occur within a certain time frame. Thus, opportunities for quicker turnaround are enticing. For example, consider the steps required to complete secondary data analyses of existing datasets compared to a qualitative study using individual interviews. In instances where the dataset is de-identified, secondary data analyses may be exempt from IRB review and analyses can begin as soon as the data are acquired. A study using qualitative interviews would be subject to IRB review and approval, including review of participant recruitment, primary data collection, and analysis. As researchers, especially junior researchers, develop their field relationships and interviewing skills, all these procedures, materials, and respondents may change dramatically. Research institutions typically offer support for investigators who need assistance with quantitative analyses through biostatistical cores that can offer assistance on a pay-per-project or hourly basis. There are few comparable institutional support structures for qualitative research.

Building a publication list is an important part of the P&T process. Publication of research findings can play a role in building community partner trust or can destroy trust. There may be community objections to publishing accounts that offend certain members or recount a less-than-perfect path to success. Publication, which rarely benefits the community directly and often highlights the university partner, can lead to the suspicion of academic intentions.

When publications are forthcoming, there are various challenges to publishing CBPR and qualitative findings in general, particularly in high-impact journals. Journal reviewers and editors may lack sufficient knowledge or experience with CBPR to assess methods, study rigor, or implications. Authors are often forced to translate the methods and findings in a way that fits more traditional, scientific manuscript frameworks, and devote less space in the article highlighting unique features of the collaboration that may be most exciting to community partners.18 Community-based participatory research products such as presentations, brochures, webcasts, and information sheets may be more important for community partners and for dissemination of findings, but have little value in academia compared to peer-reviewed publications.

Building a program of research in a focused area is an essential component of succeeding in academia as well as in competing for funding. Investigators, particularly junior investigators, need to be articulate and develop an expertise in a specific area of research. While this is possible to do within the paradigm of community-based research, participatory research allows the room and freedom for priority areas to emerge from the coupling of academic with community needs. Thus, researchers who engage in true CBPR must be open to the possibility of shifting their priority topics to sufficiently address the top needs of the community with which they are working. The flexibility that is required in this approach does not fit well with the fairly strict, discipline-focused structure of academia. It does not conform to many of the requirements of tenure and promotion. All investigators, not only junior investigators, are faced with the pressures of obtaining external federal funding in a challenging funding climate. The NIH success rate hovered below 20% (18.1% across all institutions) in fiscal year 2014 compared with 31.5% in fiscal year 2000.19 Given the limited funds available, funders have to issue priority funding areas. This may not favor investigators who engage in CBPR and particularly those who use qualitative methods. The systematic review of published qualitative studies by Gagliardi and Dobrow20 showed that less than half of the studies reported a funding source and only 26% of articles reported a federal or state funding source.

These challenges should not dissuade researchers from engaging in CBPR, particularly if the science of the project is enhanced or made more rigorous by CBPR approaches. Rather, investigators must maintain awareness of the challenges to CBPR and anticipate these challenges in much the same way investigators are trained to anticipate challenges to aspects of any research protocol or project such as recruitment setbacks or delays and issues with participant retention. The unique nature of CBPR simply presents a different set of challenges for investigators to consider and to tackle. Certainly, this may require investigators to examine and gather information about the culture and policies of their own institution regarding P&T, to perform a sort of environmental scan, in order to determine how to divide their time and resources. Community-based participatory research is but one approach to community-engaged work, and researchers need to find their own personal balance between the pros and cons of engaging in such work at different points in their careers.

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