A guest blog from Kate Boddy, Research Fellow in Patient and Public Involvement…

We raise our glasses to toast the completion of the PaReNt study (Hunt 2019). We are celebrating the success of the study by taking the parent advisory group out for dinner. Walking home, overly full and warmed by fond farewells, I reflect on the ending of this study. It feels different to the usual last encounter with a public advisory group where loose goodbyes might be said with no real thought given to the fact the collaboration is finishing, that a relationship is ending. This time there is a definite sense of completion, a feeling that we have ‘ended’ the project well; sending off our collaborators as we might a well-liked colleague. This feeling is compounded by an email the next day from one of the parent advisors whom we shared the meal with, thanking us for ‘celebrating the success’.  The difference is ‘reciprocity’; throughout the project and especially at the end we strove to create a reciprocal relationship with the parent advisors.

A reciprocal relationship between researchers and those involved, is acknowledged to be important for the involvement to be successful. Indeed, some consider it to be a defining aspect of public involvement, the key factor in ensuring engagement happens (Hughes 2018, Gottweis 2011, Shippee 2015). Yet, while researchers state it’s importance and it regularly pops up in the abundant lists of public involvement principles (e.g. Gradinger 2015, Haywood 2017, PCORI 2014,), there is little discussion about what a ‘reciprocal relationship’ actually is or, more fundamentally, how to go about enabling one to flourish. There is no guide to reciprocal relationships in research collaboration.

What do we mean by reciprocity? There’s probably a good reason why there are few definitions of ‘reciprocal relationships’ about; it seems it’s slippery and hard to pin down. A quick sample of definitions produced this word cloud with the emphasis on developing equal relationships based on mutual respect.


Personally I like INVOLVE’s ‘does what it says on the tin’ approach: Reciprocity – everybody benefits from working together.

If we don’t strive for reciprocity, what’s the alternative? That we accept the relationship will always be one sided? There are consequences to this approach. If we don’t put effort into a quality relationship where all involved can benefit we can be in danger of continuing a ‘Fund and Forget’ mentality where we conduct the research, take benefit from the efforts of those we involve, and move on to the next funded project without a backwards glance to the community or group who gave us so much. This leads to disengagement. I’m minded here of the thought provoking blogs from RoseAnnieFlo. Speaking from the perspective of a research participant, but with direct parallels to the world of involvement, she searingly states “I need to break it to you that research participants don’t disappear in a puff of smoke after your interviews are complete. Your projects have a real impact on our real lives”  What Rose describes sounds a lot like Research Fatigue. The cause of Research Fatigue is directly attributable to how researchers manage their relationships with those they research/involve. Reciprocity shouldn’t be seen as a fluffy extra, if we ignore it we risk doing real damage to individuals and communities.

So how can the PaReNt project experience, which started with a small shift in attitude, an intention to act reciprocally with our collaborators, how can this become the rule rather than the exception? The issue of reciprocity isn’t just for researchers to resolve. The infrastructure that supports research needs a radical shift in current practice’. Funding for projects needs to have flexibility built in to enable researchers to respond to community needs giving them the freedom to make reciprocity happen. And what about that researcher relationship guidebook? An exploration of the mechanics of reciprocity would be a good start. Yes; more research is needed  😉 …Watch this space!

Hunt, H., R. Abbott, K. Boddy, R. Whear, L. Wakely, A. Bethel, C. Morris, S. Prosser, A. Collinson, J. Kurinczuk and J. Thompson-Coon 2019 They’ve walked the walk”: A systematic review of quantitative and qualitative evidence for parent-to-parent support for parents of babies in neonatal care Journal of Neonatal Nursing