When research has had negative effects on communities, researchers were usually not intending harm, and sometimes researchers were even asking research questions they had designed to benefit these communities. Yet researchers can’t always know or anticipate how a community will be affected by their results. But you know who does? Community members.

Whenever CLEAR conducts a local study, we return to the communities where we obtained samples for what we call “community peer review”. We host a public meeting to present our results, our methods, and our analysis. Community members have the ability to give us input based on their own local expertise to strengthen our findings, can refute our findings, and can refuse to allow our research to circulate in ways that would harm them, including publication.

We base our approach to community peer review on a method from anthropology called ethnographic refusal, and specifically in terms of how Audra Simpson has argued that research participants and communities are best situated to understand the impacts of research findings, responding to research within its historical and contemporary political context (Simpson 2007; Simpson 2016). While community members may choose to participate in or endorse research projects, they may also refuse to engage in particular topics that they do not want known or misrepresented by outsiders or that might cause harm. Simpson and others (e.g. Tuck and Yang 2014a,b) suggest we ‘engage generatively’ with refusals, thinking of what other questions or topics might be asked, or, in the case of reporting results, to decide where else information might be shared–or not. Our publication record is not more important than the rights of communities to self-determination, so community peer review is a way to be accountable to the places we conduct research in. 

There are several steps we take in community peer review:

Step 1: Research social, cultural, and economic contexts of “the community” (aka Doing your homework). 
What are the histories, local issues, and values of the area? How do we know where “community” is and who to invite to the meeting? Gayatri Spivak (1990) calls this doing your ‘homework,’ looking into why things are structured a certain way. 

Step 2: Identify the community
This is always tricky, since a community is not a discretely bounded group of people in a phone book. We tend to have local people working with us (as in, for real, for pay), so this insight is usually via local people.

Step 3: Call a Community Meeting
It’s important to call the meeting in a local place– we usually end up in dart halls. It’s important to pay for this time and space. We never hold meetings for more than 50 minutes. It’s crucial to advertise the meeting in places that local people use– local shops, local radio, word of mouth. You’d know these things from step 1. If you don’t, back to step 1!

Step 4: The meeting
We’ve held meetings in different ways. Sometimes they are based in our academic training and look a lot like a conference presentation. Once, we forgot our projector and had to sit in a circle and talk. That one was better. We present our findings in accessible terms, talk about why we do things and how, and leave a lot of time–at least half the meeting–for discussion and back and forth.
We have a few ways we look for community input.
Surveys: We have a survey that asks about attendee’s concerns around plastics, and asks them to rank the important of our research areas/projects. This helps steer our work in the future, and also lets us know if they are refusing if they don’t fill out the surveys, don’t think what we’re doing is important, etc.
Observation: We have a few lab members take ethnographic notes on what they observe at the meeting. Is body language tense? Are people not laughing at jokes? Are people nodding vigorously?
Generally, people are polite and are good hosts to researchers. We don’t expect that people will tell us to shove our research. So we use the observations and the surveys as ways to look for subtle signs of refusal, approval, and input.

Step 5: Connecting input back to homework
What do these observations and surveys mean? What have community members been telling you? Again, the interpretation of the meeting must be linked back to place. What passes for good manners in a lecture hall is not the same in a fishing village. Again, this step is exponentially more valid when you have local people working with you (for real, for pay, in the lab).

For a full description of this process, see: Liboiron, M.; Zahara, A.; Schoot, I. Community Peer Review: A Method to Bring Consent and Self-Determination into the Sciences. Preprints 2018, 2018060104 (doi: 10.20944/preprints201806.0104.v1).

Works cited and further reading

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: Indigeneity, ‘voice’, and colonial citizenship. Junctures 9: 67-80.

Simpson, A. (2016). Consent’s Revenge. Cultural Anthropology 31: 326-333.

Spivak, G. C. (1990). The post-colonial critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogues. Psychology Press.

Tuck, E. and K.W. Yang. (2014a). Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry 20: 811-818.

Tuck, E. and K.W. Yang. (2014b). ‘R-Words: Refusing Research’ in D. Paris and M. T. Winn (Eds.) Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications.

Zahara, A. (2016). Refusal as Research Method in Discard Studies. Discard Studies Blog. 

Zahara, A. (2016). Ethnographic Refusal: A How To GuideDiscard Studies Blog. 

The meeting where we forgot the projector. It was a good meeting. Photo: Bojan Fürst.