In southern Beirut, a temporary shelter has become a permanent home. The Shatila refugee camp was established in 1949 to house displaced Palestinians and now houses thousands of families within its walls. Residents have learned to contend with overcrowding, pollution – and a steady stream of well-funded foreign researchers who come to study them.
Attracted by its unusual story and convenient location close to the airport, researchers come to Shatila to track the effects of longstanding refugee status and cultural isolation on the community. Well-meaning researchers are so common in Shatila that locals have learned to recognize them.
Before becoming a social anthropologist at King’s College London, Mesoun Sukarih volunteered at Shatila. Locals reported that people who had seen her reach for her notebooks asked if she was a social researcher: “They come for a bit, and then leave,” the locals explained.
Sukarih felt that the community was being affected by the frequent visits of scholars. Academics were among the few contacts that Shatila’s people had with the wider world. Time and again, outsiders would fly away with what they wanted and give little or nothing in return. The community began to watch the audience with amusement, then with outrage.
Some in Shatila, Sukarih feared, were being ‘over-researched’ – a real concern that social scientists and biomedical researchers increasingly face at ‘high-traffic’ research sites around the world. Sometimes, this is an issue raised by ethics-review committees. Sometimes, the community under study voices its frustrations loud and clear.
How big is the problem? Ironically, not much research has been done on the issue of overeating. In a study published last month, South African scientists note further research at two sites of HIV-prevention studies (J. Koen, D. Wassenaar and N. Mamot Sok. Sci. Med. 194, 1–9; 2017). concerns analyzed. )
They found that the term ‘over-research’ is poorly defined and includes a range of concerns. For example, some use it to describe how other communities are being disregarded in favor of a pre-established research structure or community close to a university. This can lead to skewed data and misconceptions about a particular event or place.
“Building deep relationships with a community takes time, and time requires money.”
Alternatively, the term can be used to describe a local community that bears the burden of research participation without substantial reward, creating a sense of despair that leads to decreased participation. In biomedical studies, researchers sometimes worry that participation in multiple clinical trials — and exposure to multiple drugs — may increase participants’ risk of clouding outcomes.
Repeated studies can certainly add to the frustration that locals feel when their collaboration only produces data, publications, and further research. In the South African study, many locals argued that research should be more closely linked to the development of their communities. Some projects, including grants from UNAIDS, a global effort by the United Nations to combat HIV/AIDS, require researchers to invest in infrastructure and education.
More funders should look at this model. However, many HIV-prevention studies have worked so well that their results are inconclusive: too few participants contracted the disease for the data to be statistically meaningful.
It is important that efforts to reward research participation are developed in consultation with the community being studied. Sukarih Shatila—research participants aimed at describing well-thought-out educational courses that were impractically long—one consisting of 20-hour sessions—and discussed issues irrelevant to people’s needs.
More research can bring benefits, however: a highly studied community may allow researchers to know their own needs and be knowledgeable in how to influence a study. In Hackney, an ethnically diverse London city that was rapidly undergoing civilization, a sociologist who had come to study participants in a creative-writing group, for example, was told that there was no need to do so. For this, he had to join the group and pieces like everyone else.
The researcher described how this strengthened her involvement and built strong relationships with the community that helped the project succeed (S. Neill et al., Qal. Res. 16, 491–507; 2016).
Building a deep connection with a community takes time, and time requires money. Grantors should recognize the need to build resources for such efforts in their grants; Institutions should recognize and reward this time and effort, and acknowledge that it can eat into a researcher’s publication record. It’s not good enough to come in for a bit, and then leave.