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Key Points

Engagement, collaboration and cooperation: Co-researchers

We found several different notions of participation in CSS. To further develop CSS, the specific levels of participation in each research need clarification. Initially, we would need to ask, what would it mean to engage “co-researchers“ in the research as opposed to passive notions of “volunteers“ or “participants“. The potential of CSS to include knowledge and perspective of citizens in the different phases of the research needs to be explored together with the co-researchers, i.e. including the interpretation of data and presentation of research results. Notably, not all co-researchers agree with the term “participation“ itself. Thus, alternative terms  should be considered, i.e. cooperation, collaboration or engagement. It seems essential to carry on discussions about the interests of the different stakeholders, identify common ground and goals as well as opportunities for greater inclusion. Important questions for further discussion include the following: How is participation framed and how is it shaped within the concept of CSS? What are the consequences of engaging with different communities in shaping this crucial concept? How much participation is necessary and useful in a specific context and in which phases of the research? Who is in charge of what and why?

Increasing social impact and social change

Social impact – as another key element of CSS – also appears as a rather blurry concept that addresses different dimensions in its various notions. The aim of CSS to maximize social impact on and with the research requires an ongoing consideration of innovative ways to improve public debate, and to bring citizen concerns to the relevant bodies at the local, regional and national levels. Long-term effects of the research and the up-scaling of results need to be tackled. This ambition touches upon the following questions: Who could be included in a Knowledge Coalition? What formats could be used to publicly discuss and present the research? Which analogue and technological tools and platforms could be used for the outreach and dissemination of results? Social impact for whom and regarding what?

Developing a theory of change

Developing a theory of change seems promising for clarifying the goals of the research. Most approaches include emancipatory and transformative goals and are connected to social activism or political campaigns. But at the same time, they lack a specific method to specify what the aspired change would be. In this context, a theory of change would identify long-term goals, from which repertoires of action and new tools for knowledge production could be derived. They would help map the necessary preconditions to improve the efficacy of their work, and ultimately help achieve their goal. Developing a theory of change in a knowledge coalition would also provide a potential tool for capacity and community building among the different stakeholders of the research. What is the goal that we want to achieve? Which steps are to be taken to achieve the goal?

Impact measurement

Even though social impact is a central aspect of CSS, the actual tools for its measurement are underdeveloped or generally absent. As such, co-evaluation and impact evaluation need much more attention and development. Doing so would tackle a major blind spot and improve evidence gathering in CSS. Thus, a complementary mix of evaluation methods is required. Ideally, different types and formats need to be implemented from the very beginning of any research activity, starting with citizen engagement activities and awareness measures. Furthermore, intended effects, such as increased empowerment, improved sustainability, better data, etc. must be described early in the research design and must be measured not only during the project, but also after the project ends. This will require creative solutions, as well as the involvement of communities and distributed ownership of the processes developed.

Quality of research results

The legitimacy of the research results of CSS research is another critical point. We found that CS practices are regularly not accepted as a valid methodology in their related scientific disciplines. Thus, research papers sometimes have trouble getting published in peer-reviewed journals and research results have not been recognized by political decision makers. Overcoming this suspicion would include strategies such adhering to a rigorous empirical methodology or lobbying for co-designed and co-created CSS could be discussed together in the knowledge coalition. This would include emphasizing the potentials of the role of co-researchers beyond “data providers“. Therefore, potentials for enhancing the quality of research results concerning real-world problems through CSS could be further emphasized. The quality of CSS research is to meet the needs of both sides – the co-researchers’ general need for practice-relevant forms of knowledge corresponding with local contexts, and the researchers’ need for generalized empirical insights and findings.

Increasing inclusiveness, accessibility and applicability

Inclusiveness, accessibility and applicability are further key characteristics of CSS that need ongoing consideration throughout the research process – especially regarding comprehensiveness and science literacy. First and foremost, higher degrees of inclusion can be reached by using plain language and avoiding technical language whenever possible while maintaining accuracy. Transparency in the documentation of meetings can avoid misunderstanding and improve inclusion. Moreover, visualizations of social phenomena and research results have affective power and support inclusivity, accessibility and applicability. Throughout the phases of the RIA, openness, transparency and low-threshold and ready to use methods would need ongoing review to identify potential areas for improvment.. At this point, the “FAIR” principles – findability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability of non-sensitive data – derived from OS would provide a potential framework for improving the inclusiveness and the impact of the research. Moreover, ongoing outreach actions in different formats could help to engage co-researchers beyond existing activist communities. A basic question would be: How to enable context driven approaches that assure inclusiveness and accessibility are trulyachieved in each individual case specific context (political, infrastructural, cultural, etc.)?

Agency, resources, ownership

Agency as another core concept needs to be discussed in relation to participation and engagement of co-researchers in the RIA. Inclusion effects of the research could be enhanced by an open debate in the research coalitions of questions like: Who is taking responsibility for what? Who is representing whom and why? Discussions about ambiguities of CS as part of a neoliberalization in science are still the exception today. A critical debate about cheap, alienated labor in a competitive, neoliberal research environment to counter-balance state responsibilities could foster the (self-)empowering aspects of CSS. However, as co-evaluation expertise shows, commitment comes with ownership. Thus, questions of ownership, recognition systems and compensation of participants would need to be discussed further. For CSS research aiming for a high degree of participation of co-researchers, it seems essential to provide at least, to open a dialogue on this topic. Most of the time, various forms of immaterial compensations are provided during the different research phases, such as knowledge exchange and mutual learning. Moreover, having co-ownership of the research results as well as gaining social visibility are alternative approaches to compensation s. One strategy to achieve consensus on ownership and agency would be to include co-evaluation in RIA from the beginning.

Safe communicative space and power relations

As the different levels of participation and compensation create a hierarchy in the research organization, open conversations between the different stakeholders are key. Different communication skills can produce unbalanced power-relations within the project. CSS brings various actors (academics, citizen scientists, political decision makers, among others) to the table to collaborate and thus needs to manage different interests within these hierarchies. Consequently, a safe and open space for communication, reflection, planning and mutual learning for all research participants is a prerequisite for CSS. Constant evaluation of power relations and the provision of an open conversation space during the research are not only a challenging intention but, in fact, essential steps at once towards a collaborative knowledge production. A moderated open and safe space for communication would provide the framework for addressing critical points as well as positive aspirations of the co-creational processes. The conceptualization and practical implementation of such a space would need to adapt the specific research context but it can share similar methodologies as the RIA.

Open science and data protection

In CoAct, we follow the principals of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) (e.g. Owen et al., 2012; Smallman; 2018). With social issues and social actors in the centre of the research, the ongoing discussion, adjustment and clarification of research ethics are an essential pillar of the RIA and CSS methodology. Informed consent has already been identified as a critical tool in this methodology. It needs to be fully understandable by any participant and it will also need to be adaptive to co-creation dynamics. Finally, another relevant aspect will be to balance the Open Science principles with privacy of participants. Personal data disclosure could indeed, in our RIA lead to increase vulnerability of participants in the context of mental health, youth employment, and environmental justice.