Ethical challenges of co-production: Imagine project

By Professor Kate Pahl

This programme is a large-scale collaborative ethnographic study which explores records and representations of community engagement, using the research to imagine how communities might be different and experiment with different forms of community-building.

The programme uses both traditional social science methodologies – such as interviews, meta-analysis, questionnaires, and archival analysis – and other input, such as oral history, collaborative ethnography, participatory projects and action research, literature reviews, and visual forms of inquiry.

The entire project is framed by the Durham University’s Centre for Social Justice and Community Action’s ethical framework for community-based participatory research.

A distinctive feature of this project involves co-production; it is framed and constructed by community partners. For this reason, the ethical challenges in some cases involved co-writing the ethical approval forms, participant information sheets and consent forms, and devising new ways of approaching methodological challenges and solving problems.

This case study focuses on one of the Imagine work packages, the Cultural Context of Civic Engagement; the other work packages in the programme used alternative but appropriate ethical framework approaches.

The core theme of the project is the importance of young people exploring their own history, literacies and identities through research with a wide range of community partners. The community partners carry out the research alongside young people, university students and the university team.

Ethical process

The researchers constructed an over-arching ethical framework and applied for ethical approval before the start of the project. The framework outlined the project’s two-stage approach.

The first stage involved co-producing an ethical agreement with community partners. This included:

  • establishing terms of reference
  • setting up an ethical advisory board for sensitive issues (in the case of children under 16, parents and youth workers guided this process, parents as well as children received information sheets and consent forms)
  • decisions about data recorded and stored (why and what kind of data is collected)
  • details about output authorship and intellectual property rights were collectively agreed

In the second stage community partners who devised the studies constructed their own ethical protocols. In several of the research projects they submitted a further ethical approval form to the host university’s ethics board, to ensure the work was approved.

As each project was devised, the process of applying for ethical review precipitated further questions between the groups about ways of protecting anonymity and ensuring the wellbeing of participants. This became particularly acute when the town being studied (Rotherham) was subjected to intense media scrutiny. Ethical protocols were reconsidered by community researchers to protect participants following incidents of mis-quoting by the media.

A further meeting, to draw up an agreement about intellectual property and agree shared and lasting outputs, is planned towards the end of the project. In the case of the youth service, issues such as confidentiality and anonymity will be fully discussed with the young people.


  • The ethical framework, developed by Professor Sarah Banks (the lead co-investigator of the Historical Context of Civic Engagement), was essential in informing the process. In some cases, community researchers asked for specialist training (ie in oral history) or considered alternative ways of representing data (ie in images and art) in order to ensure that the research outputs and data processes were equitably shared.
  • The two-stage process meant that community partners met initially to discuss ethics as a team and also facilitated regular review of the projects by community co-researchers.
  • The second stage of gaining individual ethical approval was demanding for community partners, and Professor Kate Pahl spent some time supporting the devising of information sheets and consent forms with them.
  • Some outputs (portraits, art work, and digital work) had to be agreed on a stage-by-stage process, as participants began to own the process of production.
  • Contexts within communities may change. Intense media scrutiny may alter how a community wish to proceed with a research project.

Related content

Project details on Gateway to Research

Last updated: 17 November 2023

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