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Values-Based Ethics For University-Community Collaboration

When universities and communities collaborate on research, these projects will need to go through a university-based ethical review process. Every country and every institution will have a slightly different set of processes and policies. If you are a researcher, you should contact your institutional research office for information and guidance. If you are a member of a community organisation, you probably have your own ethical guidelines for working in your community. The fact that your university partner needs to go through an ethics process is not a criticism of your organisation, but is part of the legal requirements under which universities operate.

This can sometimes feel bureaucratic and unnecessary, but there are toolkits that aim to help you work through the issues. Before trying to navigate the paperwork, it might be worth meeting up to discuss what might be called ‘values-based ethics’, which reflect the values that all project partners hold.

How to begin?

When collaborating with a group it can be really useful to define early on what key aspects of the collaboration will look like practically. Doing so can help to create realistic expectations, to better define roles and can clarify misunderstandings before they become problematic. One way to do this is to begin by collectively defining shared values and then thinking about, and writing down, what it would look like to put these values into practice. Here is a link to the Rivers Exercise, which might help your group begin.

The table below draws on Mary Brydon Miller and her collaborators’ ‘structured ethical reflection’ process (2010). In the left-hand column are some examples of shared values that the participating organisations may aspire to. Along the top row, are headings for the kinds of activities that the partners may be engage in. The values and the activities listed are just examples – it is down to the partners in a specific collaboration to define these for themselves.


The following questions may help to flesh out the content of the grid – and the ethos of the collaboration:


Where will decision-making reside? If it resides with a small group or an individual, will this power been democratically conferred? Is there recourse or accountability if other members of the group are not happy with a decision or the decision-making process?

Organisational Structure

It is not the case the ‘ultimate co-production’ is attained by completely horizontal decision-making procedure. Procedures must be fit for purpose – all may not need nor want to participate in all decisions and doing so may be too time and energy intensive for little gain. What makes a procedure co-productive or democratic is not how flat it is but the fact that it is collectively agreed upon and that there are avenues for recourse.

Assets to be created

Who will benefit and how. Who will be the owners? What form of copyright will be appropriate? How will the public gain access?

Remuneration and Recognition

What kinds of labour will be remunerated and what kinds will be voluntary. How will remuneration take place in practice? How will labour be distributed, shared and recognised as valuable?


In thinking through these considerations is also useful to bear in mind:

  • Who might be staying silent/being silenced and why?
  • Who is not in the room that has a stake in this?
  • Which decisions are we not discussing at all (e.g. budgetary, strategic, legacy)



Brydon-Miller, M., Coghlan, D., Holian, R., Maguire, P. & Stoecker, R. (2010). Covenantal Ethics for Action Research: Creating a New Strategy for Ethical Review. IDr Jacques Boulet (ed.) Proceedings of 8th World Congress 2010: Participatory Action Research and Action LearningAustralia6-9 September 2010, pp. 116.