Contesting boundaries: researcher networks as inclusive and exclusive spaces

Posted 17/08/2022 by 9a4fa0b2-a68f-44ca-95b6-a2b900c1471a

Dr Nicola Palmer

by: Dr. Nicola Palmer, Head of Doctoral Training, Doctoral School, Sheffield Hallam University

Researcher networks exist in a multitude of forms, at a range of scales, with a variety of purposes and membership size. However, there is often little reflection on what being membership-led means in terms of researcher networks as spaces of inclusion and exclusion. The notion of exclusive membership is commonly associated with a sense of privilege, which raises questions around access and participation in the context of researcher networks and the Researcher Development Concordat’s ambition of ensuring people and ideas flow freely through the research system. 

The creation of aToolbox for Developing and Sustaining Effective Researcher Networkshas drawn on initial thematic analysis of a dataset comprising examples of practice from a range of international researcher networks, new and established. It has enabled us, as members of Vitae’s Researcher Networks working group, to reflect on the boundaries that are established or emerge during the development and continuation of networks 

Many researcher networks are bounded by membership criteria linked to being a scientist, an early- or mid-career researcher, a woman, or having a disability, for example. Inevitably this results in a complicated arena of researcher networks that may fit multiple, intersecting identities of a single researcher and unwittingly pit networks against each other. For researchers fortunate enough to locate multiple networks aimed at them, time constraints will force them to make choices about which networks to participate in. In contrast, some researchers may struggle to find networks that fit their researcher characteristics and find themselves excluded from this type of researcher support. The extent to which researcher networks are open or closed in terms of membership is not the only factor that impacts upon their operation as inclusive or exclusive spaces, that are accessible or restricted in nature.  

There is a need for researcher developers, managers, and coordinators of researcher networks to recognise their role as ‘gatekeepers’, consciously and unconsciously presenting barriers to access and participation. Joining a network does not guarantee a sense of belonging by virtue of fitting membership criteria and this can have implications for inequality among participants. Members of networks may experience a space differently and this can impact on the propensity of a network to create value and be perceived as worthwhile to individual researchers. The development of connections between researchers in a network and the sharing of ideas and information depends, to some extent, on the promotion of an inclusive environment where members are encouraged and feel equally comfortable to contribute, share ideas and learn from each other.  

Do we provide opportunities for all members to be involved as much or as little as they wish to be, or do some members retreat in the face of dominant agendas, cultures, environments or paradigms? How open, flexible, and dynamic are networks as member needs evolve? And to what extent are members of researcher networks actively contributing to creating spaces of inclusion or exclusion? 

Access and participation are important to the sustainability of networks and maintaining momentum, particularly where membership is time-bound, often voluntarily (e.g., limited term allowed as part of network) or involuntarily (e.g., through a fixed-term contract). Yet the temporal and fluid nature of network membership can sometimes provoke an implicit reluctance to address issues of access. 

We recognise that there are potential benefits of widening access beyond narrowly defined membership boundaries or linking networks together through collaboration, thus promoting the amplification of ideas and the harnessing of creative and innovative solutions to commonly shared researcher issues. We welcome further reflections on boundaries, inclusion, and exclusion linked to the ‘membership-led’ nature of researcher networks and the broader impacts of this for researcher support.