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The Importance of Valuing Diversity Within Research

The world of research has never been more inclusive than it is now.  Only 100 years ago, nearly all researchers were white and men. Research participants were primarily white men as well.  Classic social science studies including the Stanford Prison Experiment only included college-aged men as participants, while people of color were forcibly experimented upon, resulting in inhumane pain and in some cases, death.

Dr. Sarah Beth BellDr. Sarah Beth Bell

Research is essential to developing new treatments for diseases, creating new processes to enhance learning within our educational systems, understanding how to market a new product to consumers, and much more.  Research serves as a means of finding innovative, pioneering, and progressive ways to improve different systems spanning across multiple disciplines of study.  While there is a common understanding surrounding the importance of research, this article attempts to explore the importance of diversity within research from the participant and researcher standpoint.

Diversity among Research Participants

While most of these problems have diminished to at least some extent in modern times, we still have more work to do.  With regard to research participants, diversity is greatly lacking, but results are usually assumed to be generalizable to everyone.

From a global perspective, up to 80% of research participants can be described by the WEIRDacronym — white, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.  Only approximately 12% of people around the world live in this type of society.  When researching primarily “WEIRD” people, the results may not generalize well to people of all income levels living in different parts of the world.  In addition, nearly half of social science research draws from college students at the university where the research is being conducted.  College students are generally younger, wealthier, and more privileged than the general population at large, making the frame of generalizability even narrower.

Representation matters when it comes to recruiting research participants. When diverse populations are not included in research, people question the validity of the results, and rightly so.  How do we assure that our research is inclusive?  Below are some key tips to consider.

Recruiting and including diverse participants:

  1. Develop relationships with community partners who work with people from different backgrounds.
  2. Accommodate participant schedules, provide transportation as needed, and offer a fair incentive to thank them for their contribution to your research.
  3. Establish trust when working with vulnerable populations such as people with mental health disorders,  people who use substances, or people who have experienced trauma.

When conducting research with diverse populations:

  1.  Do your best to consult with members of the population you are studying while you are developing your research questions to make sure you are asking relevant questions in an appropriate way.
  2. Create a reciprocal relationship with the community you are conducting research with.  What could you offer the community members who are willing to participate in your research in return, so both groups benefit from the study?

Diversity among Researchers

Dr. Jasmine Willis-WallaceDr. Jasmine Willis-Wallace

Not only does diversity and representation matter when considering research participants, it is equally important when it comes to the actual researchers. Only 30% of researchers are women, and Hispanic and Black people are poorly represented as well, at 7% and 5% respectively.  It is unknown how well LGBTQ+ people are represented in research, because not everyone feels comfortable coming out in a work environment.  Asian researchers of all ethnic backgrounds, from Chinese to Indian, are usually treated as one demographic group.  In the United States, 9 of the top 15 STEM fields have no indigenous professors.  Studies have shown that the quality of research increases when performed by diverse groups, as different life experiences add valuable perspectives to research projects.

Diversity among researchers starts with diversity among trainees.  Researchers are less diverse than the general population due to a leaky pipeline problem.  Many diverse students study research-related fields, but at each stage of progression (completing an undergraduate degree, graduate school, becoming a professor, etc.), a disproportionate amount of budding researchers from diverse backgrounds leave the research field.  This may be due to experiencing implicit bias, not getting as many opportunities as other trainees, not having the same financial background as the other trainees, being a child’s primary parent, or having more responsibilities outside of the lab.  Strong mentorship that heavily emphasizes inclusivity and explicitly values diversity is one tactic to reduce these disparities.  In addition, when the established researcher is flexible with their trainees, those trainees are more likely to be able to continue in the field.

What value does research really have if its results only apply to specific privileged populations?  Diverse participants inform research results applying to the diverse societies we live in.  Diversity among researchers helps to promote trust, because participants feel more comfortable with researchers who they can identify with. Research has shown that scientists from historically underrepresented groups have more novel and creative scientific ideas that add value — when diverse people are included and listened to.  And we can’t trust our science very well if we only study certain people but assume the results apply to everyone.  We hope our tips will provide a starting point for making research less “WEIRD”.

Dr. Jasmine Willis-Wallace is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Dr. Sarah Beth Bell is a social psychologist at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine in Tulsa.

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