Uses and abuses of user research 1

January 6, 2006

Martin Bulmer is right to draw attention to the questionable quality of some participant research on disability issues ("Research by public could be 'unreliable'", December 16).

I was involved in some so-called user-led research in mental health three years ago. I was appalled at what I witnessed. People with absolutely no idea of what credible research involves were dominating the agenda and were unaware of the limits of their knowledge. When it was revealed that I was about to start a PhD, one of them yelled "we don't want people doing PhDs in here".

I left the meeting and was surprised to receive, some months later, a letter from the group asking if I would run some training sessions, as they were having trouble doing the research. I declined, only to hear some time later that the charity funding all this had decided to contract the research out to universities, such were the problems that had been encountered. Sadly, none of the group that attended the original meeting produced any research at all, despite them receiving sizeable sums of money.

It is right to privilege the informant and not assume that the researcher is the expert. But all research needs to be well thought out, rigorous and appropriately supervised. The results should not be dictated by any vested interest and that includes factions of disability groups who do not speak for everyone in the group. Paul Burton states that before participatory research, mental health research resulted in "poor quality services". He is right. But the mental health services are now scandalous and I have not seen user-led research pose a meaningful challenge to them.

Sally Baker
Research Institute for Enhancing Learning
University of Wales

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