Professor Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, a Forensic and Clinical Psychologist in the Department of Psychology, led a project funded by, and in collaboration, with the NSPCC to look into technology-assisted child sexual abuse (CSA). The research led to changes in perceptions and terminology associated with technology assisted CSA, and to the development of training and resources for practitioners. Here she reflects on how she used knowledge exchange methods to make the project richer and more impactful.
How the project began
The NSPCC wanted to understand the differences in the impact and nature of offline and online child sexual abuse (CSA) because policy, practice and support at that time were based on research about offline CSA. We (a collaboration between the Universities of Bath and Birmingham) successfully responded to an NSPCC tender for the research. Although not initially designed as a knowledge exchange project, as the research progressed, the partnership became more collaborative. In particular, the NSPCC’s project lead, Pat Branigan, became more involved, particularly in terms of assisting with recruitment and discussing findings.
How it worked
It was very difficult to recruit research participants because, understandably, professionals working with young people were concerned about their vulnerability. We found that having Pat assisting with recruitment within his role at the NSPCC was incredibly beneficial. Pat provided introductions to colleagues, and raised awareness about the project at meetings and in newsletters.
We also co-presented at the NSPCC National Training conference to raise awareness of the project. To further encourage understanding of the project, Pat asked a young person from an NSPCC participation board to co-present with us to give a young person’s perspective of our research: many young people are willing to talk about their experiences if it will help prevent the same thing happening to someone else. It can even feel quite empowering. This workshop was instrumental in Childline coming on board with the project, which ultimately was where we recruited most of our research participants.
Knowledge exchange was also exemplified in terms of interpretation of findings - for example Pat’s knowledge, experience and ideas were important to the research particularly as part of discussions about our findings, their interpretation and what they meant for the NSPCC. Ultimately, the collaborative nature of the project included later presenting at several conferences and co-authoring blogs for the NSPCC.
When working with external organisations, I find it is important to be flexible. Achieving your research aims and objectives can often be best achieved by taking a collaborative approach. For example, a contact within the organisation can assist you in understanding how best to engage people within that wider organisation or how to solve a problem.
Working together also meant that we were merging research with practice. We could ask our partners ‘will this work in practice? Are we missing anything? Is there a better way to go about this?’. And equally, we brought our research expertise to the partnership, so if they wanted to change something that would affect the rigor of the research, we were able to discuss this with them.
Benefits to my research and my partners
The main benefit of collaborative research is that the findings will be useful in practice. Ultimately, researchers want their research to have impact. In this project, we found that our research has made a difference to policy and practice in terms of perception of risk and impact of online CSA, the use of terminology (adopting the term technology assisted child sexual abuse (TA-CSA)) and the development of training resources for practitioners. Also, because Pat was involved in discussions, he could take the concepts forward within the organisation and other projects without having to wait several years for the research to be finished - insights from our study could be applied to their work as they emerged and have an immediate impact.
The partnership also helped with the dissemination of the research. Policymakers and practitioners heard about the research through the NSPCC, who launched the report, hosted it on their website and referenced the findings in strategy documents. And the NSPCC were able to work with partners in the field, feeding the findings into training programmes and assessment tools, for example.
It also led to other opportunities for wider impact. For example, I was invited to present the work at the London Ambulance Service conference about how to be alert to signs of concern about online grooming and TA-CSA. We were also asked to create resources: one for the London Ambulance Service staff themselves and another for them to share with parents.
Barriers we had to overcome
Projects in the field of child sexual abuse are often funded by charities rather than research councils. Funding deadlines for bids can be only a few weeks and the funding may not cover all of the costs. Furthermore, for some funders, by submitting a bid you are agreeing to accept the contract terms as they stand. Therefore, trying to get pre-approval of contracts, as well as prepare the proposal alongside other commitments, can be challenging.
However, on the plus side, knowledge exchange projects are often the ones that generate the greatest impact. They can both directly and indirectly inform practice, as well as sometimes policy. On a personal note, they may raise your profile as a researcher in the field and open up new opportunities for you. For all these reasons, such projects can be very worthwhile.
My top-tips for knowledge exchange projects
- Go into the project knowing that your partner can really help inform the research that you are doing.
- Be as flexible as you can, because the work will end up being richer and improved through collaboration.
- Consider the strengths from each side: academic knowledge and scientific rigour combined with industry knowledge and experience.
- Allow time for ethical and contract approval – both of these may take a lot longer than your partner organisation may realise but are fundamental to the success of a project.
- Hold in mind what your partner needs from the project – and be clear about what you need from them.
- Find ways to have both academic and organisation focused outputs so both academic and practice goals are achieved.