Abstract

International collaboration in social work research, particularly research in the global south, presents unique opportunities for the personal and professional development of researchers and students alike. Yet data to help direct the process are limited. Using a research project recently carried out in Ghana as background, the authors present some guidelines for planning and conducting international research collaborations and underline challenges and opportunities in each. Factors highlighted include the process of building a collaboration, development of a research plan, funding and budget concerns, human subject considerations, sample selection, issues in collecting and analyzing data, and dissemination of research findings. Throughout, the authors address the role of respect, mutuality, and science in the conduct of international research in resource-constrained countries.

International research has facilitated awareness of global issues and has allowed for cross-cultural comparisons. It has permitted investigators and practitioners to effectively share expertise and resources. As a result of advancements in communication and cross-border travel, today about one-fifth of the world's scholarly publications stem from an international research enterprise (McColl-Kennedy, 2010). Indeed, a new character of research has emerged; the research enterprise has become an integral part of globalization. An important aspect of this enterprise is collaboration between researchers and stakeholders across national boundaries. The increase in international collaboration results from a sense that group effort generates higher-impact output (McColl-Kennedy, 2010), more innovative research outcomes (Renfrew, Raisler, Kennedy, Mudokwenyu-Rawdon, & Prakasamma, 2003), and enhanced capacity to address complex global challenges like natural disaster, climate change, poverty, and disease. One way that international collaboration has occurred is through the “scientific diaspora” of international researchers (Anand, Hofman, & Glass, 2009); an aspect of this is the U.S.-based researcher who partners with local researchers and practitioners in an international location to carry out an evaluation or research project.

Recent trends in social science research and practice favor involvement of multiple stakeholder groups in program planning, implementation, and evaluation (see Blumenthal, 2011). Indeed, there is a growing awareness that international research requires an understanding of the context, which is best provided and validated by local residents (Hanawalt, 2006; Musil et al., 2004). Moreover, active involvement of local stakeholders, beginning at the planning stage, fosters personal and collective empowerment and ensures that programs created and evaluation results are relevant and responsive and find the support necessary for optimum impact (Katz & Martin, 1997; Musil et al., 2004). Collaborations may also help challenge stereotypes and enable acquisition of new perspectives as the research team interacts with people from different cultures.

The profession of social work has been an active participant in efforts to foster global cooperation, including short-term missions, service learning opportunities for students, international field placements, and faculty exchanges. Evidence is well documented in the professional literature to guide the design and implementation of these undertakings (see, for example, Lager, Mathiesen, Rodgers, & Cox, 2010). With the increase in social work research carried out in international locations, attention is beginning to focus on how this research is conducted, necessitating the need for procedures to guide the conduct of such research, particularly in low-resource countries.

This article seeks to contribute to the relatively sparse literature on international collaborations in the global south by documenting the process of international research conducted in collaboration with a nondomestic partner. The context for this work is the research partnership between Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Ghana and the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) to evaluate a microfinance program in the northeastern part of Ghana, along with a comprehensive review of the existing literature on international collaboration. Specifically, the article highlights the process of collaboration formation, development of a research plan, funding and budget considerations, ethical concerns regarding human subjects, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, and dissemination of research findings. Implications for social work research conducted in an international setting are discussed.

The Process of Building a Collaboration for International Social Work Research

Existing research support points to a number of key considerations in developing effective international research undertakings (see, for example, Rolfe et al., 2004). Primary among these considerations is the involvement of and support from local partners who may be agency personnel or faculty colleagues in the host country (see Table 1). The foundation for such relationships may be existing affiliations between institutions, formal or informal relationships between a university and local partners, personal relationships between faculty working in similar substantive areas, or relationships with international students who have returned to their home country on completion of their studies. Other important relationships may be those between researchers and key community stakeholders (for example, local leaders in a given community).

Table 1:

Key Steps in Planning and Conducting International Research Collaborations in the Global South

Step Primary Activities 
Collaboration building Involving local partners (agencies, universities, community members)
Moving from personal to institutional relationships
Selecting a problem area that is relevant to local partners
Developing a research agenda
Communicating roles and responsibilities (including assignment of scientific and logistical responsibilities)
Developing an advisory group 
Funding considerations Arranging for travel costs and accommodations
Obtaining personnel, material, and participant compensation
Fulfilling a commitment to local capacity building 
Ethical considerations Providing information and acquiring informed consent
Ascertaining individual versus family or community decision making
Overcoming language and literacy barriers and arranging for use of local translators
Articulating and clarifying study goals to participants
Protecting confidentiality of participants
Defining benefits and harms (for example, lack of sustainability as a harm) 
Sample selection Overcoming challenges to obtaining accurate household or community information
Developing transparent and equitable processes (for example, computer-generated random lists)
Explaining randomization 
Data collection methods and instruments Arranging for local data collectors and data entry staff
Translating instruments into the local language
Debriefing locals frequently to clarify objectives
Appreciating cultural norms regarding hospitality 
Data analysis and interpretation Cross-checking for errors and inconsistencies
Completing a peer review process for interpreting findings
Including local researchers in interpretation 
Planning for dissemination Developing a dissemination planning tool
Identifying the best means to share results
Selecting internal and external forms of dissemination 
Step Primary Activities 
Collaboration building Involving local partners (agencies, universities, community members)
Moving from personal to institutional relationships
Selecting a problem area that is relevant to local partners
Developing a research agenda
Communicating roles and responsibilities (including assignment of scientific and logistical responsibilities)
Developing an advisory group 
Funding considerations Arranging for travel costs and accommodations
Obtaining personnel, material, and participant compensation
Fulfilling a commitment to local capacity building 
Ethical considerations Providing information and acquiring informed consent
Ascertaining individual versus family or community decision making
Overcoming language and literacy barriers and arranging for use of local translators
Articulating and clarifying study goals to participants
Protecting confidentiality of participants
Defining benefits and harms (for example, lack of sustainability as a harm) 
Sample selection Overcoming challenges to obtaining accurate household or community information
Developing transparent and equitable processes (for example, computer-generated random lists)
Explaining randomization 
Data collection methods and instruments Arranging for local data collectors and data entry staff
Translating instruments into the local language
Debriefing locals frequently to clarify objectives
Appreciating cultural norms regarding hospitality 
Data analysis and interpretation Cross-checking for errors and inconsistencies
Completing a peer review process for interpreting findings
Including local researchers in interpretation 
Planning for dissemination Developing a dissemination planning tool
Identifying the best means to share results
Selecting internal and external forms of dissemination 

Decisions on partner selection may be directed by geography, culture and language, faculty time and interest, and resource availability. Once identified, host country collaborators may be viewed as gatekeepers whose special knowledge of the context and culture is essential for the research process (Marshall, 2003). Their participation in the research project has to be authentic, providing them with the opportunity to build their research capacity and develop their own programs and careers. Effort should be devoted to ensuring development of a partnership based on mutual respect and reciprocity (El Ansari, Phillips, & Zwi, 2002). Consideration may be given to making sure the relationship formed, if personal, moves to institutions so that stakes rest in institutions, giving the collaboration legitimacy and sustainability.

Another aspect of collaboration building is selection of the problem area. There is a general consensus that research should not be conducted in countries or cultures other than the researchers' own simply because it is easier to collect data in that setting (Glew, 2008). The problem area needs to be one that is of interest and relevance to the local community and partners. This consideration is important for community buy in. It is also a social justice consideration. The specific problem area could be developed from previous pilot studies carried out by the host organization, for example.

Development of a Research Plan

After collaboration building, the next stage is planning, cumulating in the development of a research agenda. When carefully laid out, the research plan can be a useful tool serving as a road map to guide the research process. Stakeholder involvement is essential during the planning stage in that it ensures that the research project is responsive to both the host country and international partners. Main constituents of the research plan may include articulation of the issue statement or problem definition, establishment of research goals, identification and selection of measures, methods considerations, type of data or information to be collected, selection of data collection mechanisms, determination of study feasibility, decisions about resource allocation, and articulation of a dissemination plan (Bosch & Titus, 2009; McColl-Kennedy, 2010).

Another consideration during the planning stage relates to communicating roles and responsibilities, as well as the needs of all involved. A prior assessment of resources and skills each party brings to the study may be critical in this regard. With research conducted in a country of the global south, collaborators from advanced market economy countries may be better positioned to guide the scientific aspects of the project while the host country collaborators inform practical issues in relation to the context, such as gaining community buy in, developing a culturally sensitive research protocol, and planning logistics. Similar arrangements could be made for collaborations between academia and nonacademia partners. This arrangement, however, does not mean exclusion of the host country or nonacademia partners from research-related roles. Conventional work habits, including workloads, sensitivity to deadlines, and time differences, should also be addressed (Bosch & Titus, 2009). Furthermore, attention should be given to articulating the nature of the study and the location in which the study is to be conducted. This planning could go hand in hand with identification of a theme for the research project or collaboration. Ensuring that adequate information is available so the primary stakeholders (local people and research partners) understand the research focus and implementation plan may be another important consideration. In addition, effort could be devoted to development of the infrastructure necessary to support the collaboration, including formation of an advisory group made up of researchers, members of the local community, agency personnel, study participants, and funders, when possible. The nature of international work, including research, also demands that the research team plan for the unexpected, which may even include involvement in tasks other than research, such as community work.

In the case of our research project, the research plan was developed as part of the initial contact and was refined as the project progressed. The research project resulted from an existing relationship between the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College and the CRS headquarters in Baltimore. The prior relationship involved student field placements in CRS agencies internally. Concurrent with the Ghana research project, the GSSW was also involved in another CRS project in Zimbabwe. Through the CRS headquarters connection, the GSSW was linked to CRS Ghana and the research project in question. As observed in similar projects (see Ahn, Grimwood, Schwarzwald, & Herman, 2003; El Ansari et al., 2002; Seeley, Kengeya-Kayondo, & Mulder, 1992), the partnership between CRS and Boston College did not emerge overnight; it was a deliberate undertaking requiring negotiation among the various stakeholders. Trust with local stakeholders was built by stressing that CRS Ghana would lead the research agenda, with the GSSW advising on the technical aspects of the study.

Funding and Budget Considerations

Funding for international research comes from a variety of sources. These sources may be internal, from within an institution, or external, from an extramural funding source. Whatever the case, international research always involves major funding decisions around travel costs and accommodation in addition to research-related expenses such as personnel, material, and participant compensation. Budget determinations should be made in consultation with local partners when possible. Currency differences and fluctuations, especially when inflation is a factor, may need attention before implementation of a research project.

It is also important to note that when researchers from advanced market economy countries enter into collaborative research with partners from the global south, the relationship is rarely equal. The research agenda is likely to be defined by those who control the funding (Renfrew et al., 2003). Furthermore, when funding decisions are made, attention is rarely given to building the capacity of host-country partners, resulting in a further widening of the capabilities gap. To rectify the power imbalance, research partners from advanced market economy countries may facilitate an open dialogue to ensure that the research agenda is reflective of local interests. In addition, international research partners can make an intentional commitment to capacity building and can lobby their funding agencies for support of a research agenda that will not only meet research needs, but also contribute to better outcomes in the countries where the research is conducted. This effort may involve advocating for funds to contribute to the development of research capacity among host-country researchers. Some examples include coordinating or sponsoring a training session on a particular research method or software package. Another possibility may be for the research team to work collaboratively in securing funding; this has potential to empower local partners and diffuse the disparity in power and can also further develop local capacity for grant writing.

In the case of our study in Ghana, although Boston College provided most of the funding to support the research, the budget was developed with the full participation of CRS Ghana (CRS Ghana provided in-kind support in the sum of $1,300). This participation ensured transparence and maximized the limited resources available to the research team.

Ethical Considerations Regarding Human Subjects

Recent debates in international research suggest that the ethics of conducting research across borders, particularly in countries of the global south, has become a topic of major controversy and concern (Jesus & Higgs, 2002; Zeanah et al., 2006). There is a growing awareness that by bringing together two or more nation states, often with differing economic and sociopolitical systems, on a single research agenda, internationalization adds another layer of complexity to the ethical conduct of research (Jesus & Higgs, 2002).

Current ethical standards for Western social science research have their historical roots in the Nuremberg atrocities, which occurred during World War II, and the Tuskegee syphilis study, which denied research participants effective treatment. Ethical debates are therefore rooted within the context of historical injustices. For U.S. investigators, the moral principle is embodied in the Belmont Report (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1979), reflecting the basic underpinnings of justice, beneficence, and respect for people (Bankowski & Levine, 1993; Hanawalt, 2006; Jesus & Higgs, 2002; Titus, Wells, & Rhoades, 2008). For social work research, areas of concern include informed consent, confidentiality, the issue of harm versus benefits, and the incentive question; the paragraphs that follow discuss each of these areas.

Researchers generally agree that informed consent in international research should be required at the level that would be demanded in the funding country (Bosch & Titus, 2009; Schwanden, 2001). All potential participants should be told about the study, given the opportunity to ask questions, assured that they will not suffer any detriment if they choose not to participate, and given the option to withdraw from the study at any point (NASW, 2008). This process, however, may be complex in countries where decisions are not always made at the level of the individual and where serious inequalities exist in power and status. For example, such decisions may rest at the level of the family or community, likely to be the case for women in many countries of the global south. Another layer to this complexity is the perception of the idea of personhood, which may be culturally defined. The Western idea of personhood is largely individualistic, based on personal rights, autonomy, self-determination, and privacy. For other cultures (for example, the Bantu of central Africa), the idea of personhood is collectivistic and community based in nature (Jesus & Higgs, 2002). The latter idea of personhood might interfere with the informed consent requirement as understood from a Western perspective. Furthermore, acquiring written informed consent in certain locations may be problematic for many reasons, including language barriers, high rates of illiteracy, and cultural beliefs about the emphasis of signatures; some cultures may not perceive a signature as binding, whereas a thumbprint may be associated with colonialism and subjugation.

One more issue of concern is that studies conducted in countries of the global south often involve research populations with severe economic deprivation whose ability to give voluntary consent may be compromised by their vulnerability (Jesus & Higgs, 2002). Caution could be exercised in the way informed consent is negotiated. Researchers have the burden of clearly articulating the research goals and researchers' roles to study participants. For example, the research team might underscore the fact that the team is not in the community to treat illnesses or solve social problems (Jesus & Higgs, 2002). Furthermore, effort could be made to ensure that local partners are involved in the process of obtaining informed consent to maximize the use of culturally relevant and linguistically appropriate procedures. In the Ghana study, there was concern that respondents in the comparison group might answer questions with the expectation of assistance in mind. The research team addressed this expectation by fully explaining the intention of the study during the consent process and by communicating that the interviewees would not benefit directly from their participation in the study.

Problems may also arise in the area of confidentiality. Concerns may relate to data collection procedures and storage. Strategies to safeguard confidentiality may include making data anonymous through assignment of numbers and deidentification of data before storage. It is important to point this system out to participants during the consent process. Furthermore, interview locations need to be carefully selected to ensure privacy. The home of the respondent may seem to be a private location, but the respondent may feel compromised if other family members are present during the interview. A public space may be appropriate; effort may be required to ensure that people outside of the research project do not congregate there. It is also important to ensure that there is some social distance between data collectors and research participants. For example, steps could be taken to ensure that interviewers are not from the village or location where the interviews or focus groups take place. In the case of our study in Ghana, interviews were carried out under large trees in the spacious grounds of local schools. This location was ideal because of the privacy and centralized location it offered. Moreover, interviewers were careful to explain that CRS personnel would not have access to survey responses and that they would review results only in aggregate form.

Beyond the issue of securing consent and confidentiality, research in the global south can be considered problematic in other ways. An area of potential controversy relates to the issue of benefits versus harm. Benefit and harm, in international research, are normally broadly defined. For example, if research is conducted in a low-resource country with the aim of developing an intervention that is clearly beyond the means of host country residents to use and implement, the research may be considered problematic, even if the likelihood for harm is minimal (Jesus & Higgs, 2002; Renfrew et al., 2003). To minimize this problem, the research team could ensure that the research project has contextual relevance and applicability. Attention could also be devoted to communicating the study's benefits as well as any harm that may arise as a result of participating in the study. Another aspect of this effort could be educating institutional review boards (IRBs) about ethical requirements and constraints prevalent in international settings to expose IRBs to the ethical challenges researchers may encounter in the host country. More specifically, IRBs from advanced market economy countries may need to understand that formal ethical guidelines in many parts of the global south may be difficult to secure because of the absence of ethical review boards. In this context, the moral responsibility of ensuring the ethical conduct of research with human subjects is placed solely on the shoulders of the researchers. This responsibility may also entail flexibility and the obligation to build or strengthen local ethical review capacity.

Another aspect that might need attention is provision of incentives to study participants. Care should be taken to ensure that the incentive given is appropriate for the context. In the Ghana study, after consultation with local counterparts, the research team decided to give study participants two bars of laundry soap as an incentive.

Sample Selection

In international research, sampling needs to satisfy the same requirements as in the domestic environment. Recruitment procedures may vary from place to place and may be determined by the nature of the study. Researchers should stay as close as possible to proven sampling techniques. In an ideal world, the research team would aim to obtain a probability sample, in which each element of interest (person, household, or event) has a known probability of being selected. However, the reality is often that access to an up-to-date or accurate list of community members or households is limited, forcing researchers to use nonrandomized sampling techniques. The nature of the study could also limit sampling procedures to be used. Whatever the case, efforts should be undertaken to ensure that the procedures are transparent and equitable such that those selected for participation in the study are those most likely to provide the required information.

For our study in Ghana, which had a quasi-experimental design, our sample of program participants was computer generated. This method ensured elimination of investigator bias. Despite this care, we were confronted by an enraged program participant who was not selected for the study. Our host partners calmly explained the process of randomization, to no avail. The decision to survey the person in question, after the research team agreed not to include the survey in the study sample, resolved the issue. Respondents in the comparison group were recruited using random street-intercept techniques. Despite this planning, through word of mouth and out of curiosity, many more people came to visit the research site than were needed, and it was difficult to turn them away after meeting our interview goals for the day. Also, there was an issue of waiting time for interviewees. In the Ghana study, six data collectors interviewed 48 people each day. Interviewees who came early to the research site often had to wait about 45 minutes before being interviewed. The research team was concerned about the long waiting period. Local partners and CRS Ghana used this time to introduce CRS staff, explain the goals of the research project, and highlight other programs run by CRS in the area. This approach, although useful in keeping study participants occupied, had the potential to bias study participants.

Data Collection and Instrument Translation

Ways of collecting and handling data may differ between nations and within research teams. One of the challenges researchers face is deciding which data collection method is optimal for the research question, study environment, available time, and funding restrictions (Biemer & Lyberg, 2003). The options available to the research team in most settings may only be face-to-face interviews and focus groups. For reasons of time, efficiency, costs, and ethics, the research team needs to carefully appraise the different approaches and select the one that works best. Even with clearly articulated protocols, environmental factors such as belief systems, values, and attitudes may influence the mode of data collection and the validity of the data collected. To minimize such effects, local residents may be trained to collect data and perform data coding, entry, and other data-processing tasks. This approach also enhances local capacity by teaching skills that will benefit the host organization and community after the research project has come to an end. Because most of the participants in the Ghana study were women, our initial thought was to use female interviewers. However, given that the project involved travel to five different research sites in the span of one week, it was culturally and financially unfeasible for women to perform the role of interviewers; we turned to male interviewers, who used motorcycles for travel.

Before data collection, researchers should ensure that study materials and communications are produced in the local languages and at a level appropriate for study participants. The validity of instrument translation could be assessed by pilot testing of study material in a process guided by local partners. In the Ghana study, translation of the survey instrument was carried out in a way that was familiar to the local partner. As part of a two-day training on the research protocol, the local partner worked with the interviewers to review, discuss, and translate the questions on the survey. There was also a debriefing of the research team every evening to learn about challenges the data collectors had encountered in relation to the survey or research protocol. For instance, we learned that the name of the program under study was confusing for many participants because they had their own local name for the program that CRS was not aware of. This turned into a moment of learning for both CRS and the research team.

Researchers must also pay attention to the context in which the research is carried out. The research team in Ghana was not obligated to visit the chief in each village, but at each site members of the research team, both local and international, greeted the chief and offered him a token of appreciation for welcoming them into his village. Members of the local community offered the research team welcome gifts such as yams, chickens, and even a goat. Refusing such hospitality would have been considered rude in the context of rural Ghana.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

Analysis of the data is an important component of the research process. It is often dictated by considerations including sample size, research questions, and availability of software. The research team has the responsibility of processing data from the point data are obtained to the point of analysis. Critical steps may include cross-checking the coding and checking for missing data, errors, and inconsistency. Ideally, responsibility for data analyses should be assigned during the project planning phase. The focus of data analyses may be mainly to uncover patterns and trends in the data, followed by data interpretation to explain the patterns and trends observed.

Data interpretation, especially in international research, is a value-laden process in that when investigators undertake this exercise, they bring their background knowledge, experiences, skills, and biases to the process. These factors often influence how patterns are perceived and how study results are placed within the context of existing scientific knowledge (Bosch & Titus, 2009). This step can be subjective. Although the peer review process may help curb some elements of subjectivity, effort could be made to ensure the full participation of local researchers, partners, and communities, who have to live with the consequences of recommendations resulting from research findings. Attention could also be given to honest acknowledgment of study weaknesses; such consideration is responsible and ethical. Notwithstanding these suggestions, international research partners should be mindful that in certain cases, local partners may look to them for guidance and expertise and hence may not desire participation in the process outlined. In the Ghana study, the international research team shared preliminary results with CRS Ghana to determine the specific direction of the study and ensure that there would be no surprise results. This process saved time and allowed the research team to work in a focused manner.

Dissemination of Research Findings

Dissemination of research findings is a major component of the international research endeavor. It is considered a vital element of good research and a means of ensuring that research attains maximum impact (Carpenter, Nieva, Albaghal, & Sorra, 2005). Dissemination strategies may vary from one situation to another. Researchers therefore may need to use multiple methods to transfer or share knowledge. A useful starting point is the development of a well-thought-out dissemination strategy. Such a strategy enables researchers to deliberately adapt the dissemination process to their specific research and to the needs and interests of the intended users of study results (Carpenter et al., 2005). A dissemination strategy, among other things, has the potential to assist researchers in identifying dissemination partners, appraising the best means for distributing study results, and gauging the receptivity of user communities and publics. Although such planning may be performed earlier in the process, it is most useful toward the end of a research project, when findings are known or the research effort has led to tangible results such as a tool, program, or policy implications. Resources permitting, an assessment tool could be put in place to monitor and measure the impact of the dissemination. Using the research conducted by Carpenter et al. (2005) and lessons from our own research as background, in the following section we outline major components of a dissemination strategy (Figure 1 presents an outline of a dissemination planning tool).

Figure 1:

Outline of a Dissemination Plan

Figure 1:

Outline of a Dissemination Plan

Dissemination Partners

Dissemination partners are the group charged with the mandate to identify potential target audiences for the research results and suitable modes of dissemination. The group is also responsible for providing practical advice on application of study findings. This advisory group may consist of multiple stakeholders, including the host agency and members of the local and social advocate groups; these stakeholders are important to include because of the networks they belong to and the local knowledge they command. When carefully organized, dissemination partners have the capacity to ensure that the voices of stakeholders are infused throughout the research process. Although it may not be feasible to include all key stakeholders in discussions about the dissemination of research results, the challenge for the research team is to move away from traditional practices in which dissemination decisions rest entirely with global north partners. Involvement of actors from the global south permits authentic ownership of study results and strengthens local capacity for authorship and other dissemination skills.

Mode of Communication

Internal and external dissemination may take many forms, including traditional press releases, conference presentations (local and international), publications in peer-reviewed journals, and informal presentations within the local community. The mode of communication selected may be influenced by guidelines provided by the funding agency and by the capacity of stakeholders, including availability of resources, language capacity, and audience needs. Academics may prefer to disseminate research results through traditional refereed journal articles; despite their merits, research results communicated through such articles have the potential to exclude a significant proportion of the nontechnical target audience. Notwithstanding the method selected, care could be taken to ensure that information shared, especially internally, is accessible and understood by the target audience, including the research team, research participants from the host country, funders, and other publics likely to find the study results useful. In cases in which the team is connected to an institution of higher learning, a well-thought-out channel for incorporating research results into teaching and training may be another important consideration with the potential to help bridge the gap between research in international settings and student formation. Timing may be another important consideration in maximizing impact; a staggered approach involving the release of different types of information at different stages may be considered.

Internal Audience

The internal audience is the primary target audience, the group within the target audience to which the study results are directed. It can also be said to be the group that is directly involved with the research process and may include research participants from the host country, partner agency, home institution of global north partners, and funding institutions. It is common practice for good research to keep the publics who are directly involved with the research well informed of study results. This communication often takes the form of periodic progress reports, internal newsletters, research abstracts or summaries, and reports. To allow for broad utility, research results need to be communicated effectively. To do so may require that the research team be familiar with its primary audience, viable methods of accessing data, barriers to accessing and using data, and related capacities and capabilities.

External Audience

Social work research projects are generally undertaken to improve an aspect of community life; hence, the local community, opinion leaders, and policymakers, although external to the research process, are considered important external audiences. Other external publics may include researchers, practitioners, social advocates, and anyone who is likely to find the study results useful. These groups may serve as consumers or advocates of the research findings. As is the case with internal audiences, the research team has an obligation to communicate study results effectively and efficiently consistent with the capacities, capabilities, and preferences of the external audience. For example, when communicating results to a nonacademic primary audience, care should be taken to explain technical terms. Moreover, the mode of dissemination should reflect the preferences and capabilities of the audience. For a nonacademic audience, a visual representation of key study results may be more appealing.

As noted earlier, the external audience may also serve as champions for the study results. Indeed, social influence approaches (for example, having respected opinion leaders endorse study results) are valuable in cross-cultural research. Similarly, the inclusion of host-country policymakers at various levels has the potential to ensure that research findings have utility and long-lasting impact (Renfrew et al., 2003). Moreover, involvement of social advocates, including groups that have been involved with the issue of interest in the past, may be important for creating and maintaining commitment to the research agenda.

Conclusion: Final Thoughts

Research alliances across national boundaries present their own unique challenges but also offer exceptional opportunities for learning and for personal and professional development. Indeed, global social problems demand authentic partnerships. Social workers, regardless of citizenship or place of residence, have the responsibility to respond to social problems as researchers, practitioners, or both. Social work is uniquely positioned to provide leadership in enhancing an understanding of social problems that affect vulnerable individuals and households worldwide; social work researchers have the mandate and moral authority to act.

The evidence reviewed in this study suggests that the conduct of international research is a complex endeavor. However, when carried out with sensitivity, international research has the potential to enhance life chances and reduce the inequality that characterizes exchanges between the global north and south. Internationalization of social work research illustrates the interconnectedness of humanity and social work's mandate to alleviate human suffering. The challenge for researchers engaged internationally is to leave participants with change that makes a difference and that the local community can own. To do this effectively, investigators need to be sensitive to the host culture and to avoid the tendency to dominate the research agenda in what is termed “social work tourism” (Bezruchka, 2000). As is the case with all research endeavors, cross-cultural research, especially in an international setting, requires humility, patience, and openness to learning in addition to the expertise the research team brings to the table. After all, social work, by nature, is a profession of learners.

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