Why public involvement is crucial for quality research

Following the launch of our new public involvement group, SPECTRUM Research Fellow, Dr Parvati Perman-Howe, reminds us why working with members of the public is crucial to delivering quality research and shares her top tips for meaningful public involvement.

Dr Parvati Perman-Howe profile photo
Dr Parvati Perman-Howe, SPECTRUM Research Fellow, KCL

This month saw the launch of our new public involvement group for people with experience of nicotine use and mental ill-health. The Nicotine and Mental Health Group, which is supported by SPECTRUM, will help to influence and shape our research and that of other researchers who access the group.  

What is good public involvement?

Public involvement, defined as research being carried out ‘with’ or ‘by’ members of the public rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them1, is an important part of research which is often overlooked. If done correctly, public involvement should be enriching and rewarding for researchers and group members alike. If done badly, public involvement may appear tokenistic and be seen as a tick box exercise. But what does good public involvement look like? Below are some of my top tips for getting the most out of public involvement.

Public involvement should:

  • Be well planned: there should be a clear and specific rationale for including public involvement in a research project.
  • Have longevity: it should span the lifetime of a research project from the brainstorming of research ideas to the dissemination of findings.
  • Be diverse: it should include people from different backgrounds and with different experiences (albeit within the remit of the involvement group).
  • Be inclusive: people should have the option to take part in a wide range of activities, in different formats and at a time and place that suits them.
  • Meet people’s needs: support and training should be offered both to those taking part and to the researchers who are co-ordinating and conducting involvement activities.
  • Acknowledge people’s time and commitment: people should be reimbursed for their time and that should be done in a way that will not negatively affect them (for instance, issues related to the receipt of benefits should be identified and addressed).
  • Be evaluated: public involvement is iterative, and processes should be adjusted as and when necessary.

Why is public involvement important?

By getting the most out of public involvement activities, you will likely be rewarded with improved relevance and quality of your research. Additionally, the process of public involvement upholds democratic principles and can help to maintain ethical standards in research. Furthermore, public involvement can create a sense of purpose and empowerment for those who take part. It is for these reasons, amongst others, that nowadays most research funders expect research proposals to include a detailed public involvement plan.

Improved relevance

Gaining input from people who have knowledge and experiences that are relevant to the research can help to focus on what matters to people. In turn, focused research is more likely to result in outcomes that are useful to the people the research aims to benefit.

Improved quality

Public involvement can help to alleviate some common problems experienced in research, which could otherwise jeopardise the quality of research findings. For example, involvement group members may help with the recruitment and retention of research participants.   

Upholding democratic principles

Public involvement in research is an intrinsic part of citizenship, public accountability and transparency1. People have a right to have a say in research that may affect them.

Maintaining ethical standards

Research ethics committees will likely assess plans for public involvement. Public involvement can ensure that research is acceptable and relevant as well as improving the informed consent process, the experience of participants, and the communication of progress and findings2.

Creating a sense of purpose and empowerment

People who have previously been involved in research have said that they felt a sense of purpose from being able to use their experience and knowledge to help improve research and make the future better for other people. Public involvement also provides the opportunity for people to gain new knowledge, learn new skills and utilise existing skills3. You can find out more about people’s personal reasons for being involved in research in these videos from healthtalk.org.

How can researchers access the Nicotine and Mental Health Group?

We encourage members of SPECTRUM to involve the Nicotine and Mental Health Group in their research related to mental health. There are different options for how you can work with the group depending on the public involvement requirements of your research project. If you would like to discuss how you can access the group, please contact me: parvati.perman-howe@kcl.ac.uk / info-nicotineresearchgroup@kcl.ac.uk.

Where can I find out more?

You can find a suite of useful resources about public involvement in research on the NIHR website.

You can find out more about public involvement in the Nicotine Research Group at King’s College London on our website.

  1. NIHR: National Institute for Health Research. Briefing notes for researchers - public involvement in NHS, health and social care research. 2021. Available from: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/documents/briefing-notes-for-researchers-public-involvement-in-nhs-health-and-social-care-research/27371
  2. NHS Health Research Authority. Impact of public involvement on the ethical aspects of research. 2016. Available from: https://www.invo.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Impact-of-public-involvement-on-the-ethical-aspects-of-research-updated-2016.pdf
  3. NRG: Nicotine Research Group. Your questions answered... 2022. Available from: https://www.nrgppi.org/q-a.