At-a-Glance Guidelines for Communicating About Research

A Resource for Organizational Leaders Participating in Research Studies

By Emily Kowall, Rebecca Davis

As implementation researchers, we often conduct interviews or surveys with staff at a range of organizations, and having the support of the organizations’ leaders is important for those research activities to be successful. But actions that may seem helpful from an organization leader’s perspective, such as making participation in a staff survey mandatory, can conflict with protections that are central tenets of conducting research with human subjects. As part of an ongoing study we’re conducting in North Carolina, we developed a one-pager of “dos and don’ts” for leaders with clear guidance for communicating about research to their staff members in ways that support these tenets.  

The Context for Developing These Guidelines

Our research team is studying the implementation of the Ready for School, Ready for Life initiative in Guilford County, North Carolina, which engages multiple organizations in the community to provide a range of early childhood services. Strong messages of support from organizational leaders for the study are important when introducing an external research team like ours as legitimate partners. Our study team wanted to help balance leaders’ enthusiasm about encouraging staff members to participate in research activities with the need to ensure their confidentiality and privacy and to protect their rights as research participants.

Research procedures for protecting human subjects require that potential participants be informed about the voluntary nature of study participation and about any privacy and confidentiality protections. A Checklist of Resources for Learning about Research and Research Participation from the Office of Human Research Protections at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides further information about these requirements, and Bass and Maloy (2020) offer a brief overview of the distinctions between “research” and “quality improvement activities,” which have different requirements.

It’s not unusual for enthusiastic organizational leaders to inadvertently undermine the research participant protections—for instance, by sending out a message to staff members saying “make sure you participate in the survey!” Or they might breach confidentiality by asking a staff member, “Have you participated in the interview? What did you say?”  

To make things easier for leaders, our team developed this one-pager with simple advice for communicating with staff about research activities. Note that this document pertains to a study where participation in research collection activities was voluntary. Modifications would be needed if any research activities were considered part of a staff member’s job duties or were otherwise mandatory.

Guidance for Organizations Participating in a Study

Participating in a research study can be exciting, but it may also bring feelings of nervousness or confusion and can prompt questions from staff about what will happen to the information they provide. The research team wants to make sure that all participants in surveys, interviews, focus groups, or other parts of the research study feel comfortable sharing their opinions freely. At the start of each research activity, the research team follows a set of procedures that inform participants of the confidentiality and privacy guarantees. Doing so protects the rights of study participants and helps ensure that findings from the research can be authentic and accurate. 

You can help us make sure that individuals feel comfortable participating in the study. Here's how: 

You can… You shouldn’t…
  • Make sure staff members know that their contribution to the research is valuable. 
  • Let staff know that research is occurring and what to expect. If you are not sure what to expect, contact the research team. 
  • Direct staff to bring any questions that they might have to the research team. 
  • If researchers are visiting your site to interview staff, find a quiet and private space for interviews to occur. 
  • Remind staff about upcoming research activities, like surveys they may be receiving. 
  • Share information with staff about your organization’s policies about participation in research, such as when research activities can be completed or whether accepting an incentive is allowed. 
  • Indicate that research participation is mandatory.  
  • Provide direct or indirect messages to staff about what their responses should be in any research activities.  
  • Check with individual staff to see if they were invited to participate in a survey, interview, focus group, or other research activities. 
  • Check with individual staff to see if they have participated in (or plan to participate) in the research. 
  • Ask staff what they said or how they responded to specific questions. 
  • Plan to sit in on or have other leaders sit in on researcher conversations with staff. 

When in doubt, remember that the research team is always available to answer any questions.

[Provide contact info for the research team]

Sharing the Guidelines with Organizational Leaders and Staff Members

MDRC’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), which oversees the protection of research subjects in our projects, reviewed and approved the guidelines as a part of the recruitment materials we developed for the study. We attached the one-page guide to the initial study announcement that was sent to organizational leaders in the community. Our team then shared the guidelines again whenever we responded to questions about study procedures.

Using these guidelines helped our study team provide concrete examples for partners who were eager to support the study but were unsure how. These tips are likely to be particularly useful for studies where communication about research participation will occur across many organizations or networks.

The authors would like to thank members of MDRC’s Implementation Research Group and Operations Work Group for their input on these guidelines, as well as Mervett Hefyan for her input and review.

Suggested citation: Kowall, Emily, and Rebecca Davis. 2023. “At-a-Glance Guidelines for Communicating about Research: A Resource for Organizational Leaders Participating in Research Studies.” MDRC Implementation Research Incubator (blog), September.