Initial Publication Date: May 20, 2014 | Reviewed: July 11, 2017

Ethics, Culture and Community-based Research: Review of "Research partnerships with local communities: two case studies from Papua New Guinea and Australia," (Almany, et al 2008)

Dianne Quigley, Brown University


Partnerships between scientists and local communities can increase research capacity and data delivery while improving management effectiveness through enhanced community participation. To encourage such collaboration, this study demonstrates how these partnerships can be formed, drawing on a case study in a coral reef ecosystem.

Steps towards successfully engaging communities in research were described and showed maximizing beneficence: trust was increased; scientific relevance to local communities was increased; scientific accuracy was increased; fair benefits also included appropriate incentives and open communication which mitigated exploitation and adverse harms of research. We have provided a short summary of this case study for our case study scenario with relevant analytical questions for participants to review.


Type of Activity: Conversational Lecture and Case Review

This case study is designed for advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Background knowledge would include some familiarity with environmental studies or marine science. Also helpful is an introduction to research ethics, cultural competence, participatory theory/community-based research and traditional ecological knowledge.

How the activity is situated in the course

This case study is situated in the course as part of a third module in a course titled Ethics, Culture and Community-based Research. The first module focuses on human subjects protections for individuals, groups and place-based communities (powerpoints and applied ethics readings). The second module includes cultural competence theory (including traditional ecological knowledge), powerpoints, and readings in cultural competence needs and research approaches.

The third module is focused on participatory research and community-based research theory. For environmental studies, community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) training slides are included with CBNRM perspectives/guidance readings. Then students need to review a case study in CBNRM and evaluate how it is community-based, how does it improve group/place-based community research protections, how are fair benefits/risks discussed, how is consent achieved, how is justice worked out? What is traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) here? This case study is one option for students to select in choosing a case study.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students must fully read this case. They need to outline each step of the research process that the researchers undertook and those steps that they took which involved the community. In describing how they involved the community; they need to reflect on how researchers engagement with the community incorporated community-based research theory and also how it improved human subjects protections for respecting the community as the subject of research. Students will then critique the researchers' engagement with the community in terms of the success of community-based research and management and each of the human subject protections (achieving beneficence, nonmaleficence, respect for the individual/community and justice). Also students can review cultural competence and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) activities.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Students need to apply four theoretical frameworks here; community-based or participatory research and human subject principilism, also cultural competence and TEK. How can you describe these theory sets with the case description that you have read. Students should also incorporate emphases of these theories/principles from related readings in human subjects and community-based theoretical perspectives as they review the case. For example, a reading on the Concept of Voluntariness discusses the problematic issue of incentives for informed consent. Students should bring in those perspectives as they review the use of incentives in this paper. Similarly, a set of principles are listed and discussed in James Gruber's paper on "Key Principles of Community-based Natural Resource Management". A description of a number of these principles should be assessed in the case study.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students can discuss this as an essay they have already written and then present it as an oral presentation or they can discuss this as part of a group activity where they make notes and then report-back to the whole session. They should have good oral-speaking skills with well- organized and substantive material for their presentation.

When students write an essay, they must write a coherent, concise essay. They need to show excellent grammar, appropriate citing and good use of a writing style (APA, MLA) and make sure to write a three page paper with bibliography included.

I discussed above how they need to incorporate aspects of existing literature for this case review. They should draw on readings in community-based theory, other community-based natural resource management case studies, participatory research theory, managed protected areas, articles about beneficence, TEK and informed consent.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

This exercise addresses human subjects protections for place-based communities in field studies. For that reason, I choose geo-ethics and society as well as geo-ethics and self. As part of ethical group protections, field researchers must also prepare for cultural competence, participatory/community-based theory and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in order to improve beneficence and uphold nonmaleficence, respect for communities and justice. In reviewing the case scenario, students will need to assess how prepared they are for these new ethical approaches in field research which provide more beneficence to local communities than previous expert-dominated research.

Description and Teaching Materials

In this exercise, students will read the summary of a field study and then critically review the study for the tenets of these critical theories/principles: four-principle approach to human subjects protections as applied to place-based communities as well as individuals; participatory/community-based theory, cultural competence theory and traditional ecological knowledge theory. Either through a writing assignment or through a small group review/critique, students will identify how this field study met those tenets or did not provide evidence of parts of the tenets of these theories/principles. Did they feel that the researcher efforts were successful or lacked some evidence of productive results. Students will then reflect on the challenges of implementing adequate group protections, community-based partnership approaches, cultural competence and collecting/using TEK. This may spur some debate on the part of some students or students may identify together areas of learning that they may still require in using these approaches.

The outcomes will be that students are gaining more experience with human subjects protections for groups/individuals, that they approach their research activities with a strong foundation for assessing risks and benefits for local communities, that they are careful of past research harms and avoid maleficent research behaviors, that they know how to deal with the requirements of group consent as well as individual consent. Also students will gain more experience with the demands of cultural competence: gaining cultural knowledge, skill, cultural reflexivity, and cultural humility. Lastly, students will be learning more participatory/community-based theory as it is executed in a field study. Students will know how to engage TEK as part of the research process. They will gain a sense of the specific challenges of these approaches, ask questions, identify more training needs for themselves and be aware of the guiding principles of those approaches and how they can be implemented. They may realize a need for more study on developing fair and beneficent partnerships and study theories/cases on community capacity-building and research partnerships with community members.

Case Study Scenario

Almany et al discuss the need for Managed Protected Areas (MPAs) in marine habitats for protecting local natural resources in marine environments. These

MPAs, which are expanding across the globe, are required to have information and evidence of their usefulness by providing site-specific biophysical data, spatially explicit information such as species occurrence and abundance, distribution of specific habitats, patterns of physical and biological connectivity; the spatial scale of data which must match the spatial scale of planning (hundreds of miles). This requires significant resources and prior knowledge of the locations of critical habitats.

To meet this need, researchers have engaged local community members who are subsistence fishers in research partnerships. Both in Papua New Guinea and Australia, researchers formed partnerships with subsistence fishers and recreational fishers. In reviewing their report on research partnership in Papua New Guinea, researchers followed recommended guidance for working in community partnerships: they contacted the Nature Conservancy (TNC) which had a local field office in the area. They built an understanding of the local people, the history of marine resources, the traditional ownership and management customs. The TNC has been working on building local community capacity for sustainable fisheries to improve the decline of fisheries since 1990s (due to nighttime spear-fishing and overextraction of fish for global markets).

Community outreach was conducted with each of the four communities who have customary ownership of the three critical fish spawning areas (FSAs). Community meetings were set up where researchers provided training to community members/fishers on the biology of certain species and the need for preservation. Researchers requested community support in answering critical questions about marine sustainability in their MPA. Community representatives agreed to work in partnership with researchers to improve local management and increase local supply of fish. The TNC researchers began by teaching community members to do monthly underwater fish survey methods which has been ongoing. Subsistence fishers agreed to work with researchers to answer two questions about locations of species nursery areas which could be included into an area-based management framework and the description of the spatial extent of larvae disbursal from fish spawning areas to see if the spatial scales of fish populations and customary marine tenure are compatible. During spawning seasons, local fishers provided vessels and gear and the researchers paid for fuel, food and a small stipend for fish performance ($ 12/day for 30 spearfishers to collect samples for 10 days) along with three prizes for the best performance. Community members also captured samples and recorded data. Local knowledge surveys were carried out with the fishers to identify the location, species composition and timing of FSA and this was an enabling factor for the research sampling project. The costs of trained research volunteers from outside of these communities versus using local fishers was estimated to be much higher. Also, the catch of local fishers for sampling was higher than that of trained volunteers.

Community partnerships must demonstrate good communication between partners and adequate reporting of results. This project reported results in informal community meetings with local fishers and then multimedia presentations were given more formally to the whole community. With the results of the study, the community increased their knowledge of important fish connectivity questions to improve local stocks and reduce overfishing. Researchers gained a great deal of local information and knowledge from subsistence fishers which was critically needed to prove the usefulness of MPAs. The management plan included community decisions on no-take of certain stocks and other fishing restrictions. The community also consented to a larger fish survey study in the coming next years.

Case review questions –

What are the benefits and risks of using local fishers as comanagement researchers vs trained academic volunteers (an analysis of beneficence)? What is your ethical stance about providing incentives (monetary or other)? Is the use of incentives here acceptable? Did they discuss an approach to consent with the community?

How did they create fair benefits and how was the justice principle satisfied?

What is the added work for marine researchers in using local fishers? How would you as a marine researcher prepare to work with a local group of fishers in an MPA in a foreign country? What do you know about culturally-appropriate forms of communication ( as assessment of cultural competence)? How are you prepared for community engagement/research and community capacity-building (an assessment of community-based theory)? What was TEK here and how was that part of the research data-gathering and outcomes? Do you know international ethical recommendations that provide guidance in conducting research with local community groups, which of those guidelines were relevant in this story (review of consent, justice principle and nonmaleficence, TEK and respect for communities)? Do you know recommendations for carrying out effective partnerships between researchers and community members (community-based/participatory theory)? How were those recommendations in this field study?

Teaching Notes and Tips

approaches/principles, the instructor needs to provide four-six sets of training slides on group protections in human subjects research, cultural competence, community-based /participatory theory and also training on traditional ecological knowledge, community capacity-building and research partnerships. The case study is critical for reinforcing the understanding of these tenets in a practice. One obstacle that was presented in my trainings with students is the need to have repetitive learning of theoretical tenets and approaches that are within the theories/principles. It is a lot for them to take in a short period of time, so they need to read a number of field studies and identify the steps of these approaches in the studies about three or four times in order to internalize this and adequately provide a good review of theoretical guidance within field studies.

Students also prefer to learn theories through conversational questions after they have done their own readings of relevant theories and cases and then the instructor can provide a summary review of theories by using the training slides to reinforce the theoretical tenets. Also students prefer to answer questions in small group arrangements of 3-5 students in a group who are given a set of analytical questions to answer together. They will then report back to the larger group.


My evidence is usually in the quality of report backs from small group meetings or the adequacy of their ethical review of field studies. Also we ask them to design a research intervention with a local community and then we can evaluate the adequacy of their design and all the various steps that they have outlined to take care of group protections, cultural competence, TEK and community-based research.

References and Resources

Please see our website, the Northeast Ethics Education Partnership (NEEP) Training slides on the theories/protections and principles discussed above are there.

Please see attached our Summer Workshop Syllabus on Ethics, Culture and Community-based Research, along with the Workshop Reader list of relevant citations, bibliographies and URLs.

Research partnerships with local communities: two case studies from Papua New Guinea and Australia case study by Almany et al (2008)