Shifting the research landscape: peer research


Peer research has not only helped to change my life, but has also helped many other people, with the results of the work we have done.

Francesca*, Peer researcher

I spent a lot of years in prison, and on this [cancer care in prisons] project I was allowed to go in and sit on the other side. I love what it’s about, improving things for prisoners, it’s great to be involved. If I can contribute to improving things, I’m made up with that.

David*, Peer Researcher

The desire to make a difference in the lives of others with similar experiences to ours is what unites former offenders at RDA, and the knowledge that we are being listened to is what drives us.

Sue, Peer Researcher

As an organisation we are deeply committed to tackling the root causes that drive the revolving door of crisis and crime. As Sue eloquently puts it, this is what unites us. This unity, however, would not be possible without the core value that is central to our work. This is co-production where power is shared and our knowledge, lived experience and resources are utilised to work together towards a shared goal: a smarter criminal justice system that makes the revolving door avoidable and escapable.

This core value, of genuine and power-shifting co-production, has driven our collective interest in peer research as an approach, which sometimes can be experienced as messy as we collectively work through critical questions.

A lot more than a methodology, peer research involves a much more radical questioning of long-held beliefs about research. These include who has the power to decide who can be a researcher, what counts as research, and what is researched and how. It entails much more than involving people with lived experience in a pre-determined research process, for example as research interviewers to help build rapport with interviewees.

Instead it involves fundamentally shifting who has the power to make decisions throughout the research process, to one of a collective responsibility.

Working towards addressing these long-held beliefs requires processes of deep and critical reflection, both collective and self, and this is a journey that we are still undertaking as an organisation. In this blog, a few of our peer researchers offer their reflections on being involved in an NIHR-funded research project examining cancer care in prisons, led by academics at King’s College London, in collaboration with the University of Surrey, Revolving Doors Agency and other partners, and some of the things we have learnt so far on our journey. One of the academics on the project, Renske Visser, also offers her reflections on how greater lived experienced involvement in co-designing and conducting research has challenged some of her assumptions and beliefs about research.

We still have more to learn about peer research, supported through the ongoing development of our new research strategy, but we look forward to sharing our learning and taking you along with us.

Francesca*, Peer researcher: “When I left prison, I started doing peer research because I felt so passionately about how poorly I, and others, were treated.  I had a lot to say and none of it was particularly good.  It did become apparent that people did want to help make changes but didn’t know where to start and seeing that made me change my attitude.  Over the years I’ve learned how to get my point across in a way that’s challenging but not aggressive and how working together with people who are in charge, can really make for better services and treatments.  Peer research has not only help change my life, but has also helped many other people, with the results of the work we have done.

“I have also valued the support along the way, including when reporting findings myself. It helps to have someone to stand your corner as sometimes it can be overwhelming, RDA has provided support to safeguard myself.”

David*, Peer researcher: “My experience doing peer research for RDA has been a positive one, from coming to London and doing a two day course with eight of us in a class, to staying the night in a hotel was a happy and enjoyable experience and nice to get to stay the night in London. I also started on the cancer in prisons project and done a couple of sessions with myself, Francesca*, Sue and Renske about what we could expect going into prison, what ID we would need to get in and also we did a few different interview techniques so we could be as ready as possible for different types of characters that we could expect to come across. So overall it got me prepared for interviews by practicing interviews amongst ourselves and also a few one to one sessions with RDA staff.” 

Sue, Peer researcher: “Working with RDA has opened doors into areas of the CJS I feel passionate about. This includes probation and policing, and I have taken part in focus groups highlighting the need for change within both institutions. Crucially, these focus groups are usually attended by influential individuals and we are provided with a record of outcomes. The desire to make a difference in the lives of others with similar experiences to ours, is what unites former offenders at RDA, and the knowledge that we are being listened to is what drives us. We are all on the same page, we pool our expertise, and we learn from each other. This gives us a stronger voice, not just in focus groups, but also within RDA. Co-production is at the heart of RDA.

“RDA provides training in areas such as facilitating, so that we are able to disseminate the results of our work through conferences and other events. More specific training takes place, if required, prior to our involvement in each project. For example, on the cancer in prisons project we have gone through role-playing scenarios prior to beginning this aspect of the project, and this has been vital to our ability to carry out a skilled and, thereby, informative interview. My experience of working with RDA, including staff members, has been enjoyable, eye-opening and above all, productive.” 

Renske Visser, Research Fellow, University of Surrey: “Working with lived experience researchers has shown the value of including their voices in every aspect of research. While initially the intention was that they would only be involved as advisors on the project, commenting on interview schedules and information sheets, we developed such a strong working relationship that they became peer researchers, co-conducting some of the interviews and helping with the analysis of the research. The presence of Experts by Experience in the interview setting helped establishing rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee, something that is vital in an environment where trust is difficult. During the analysis sessions, the Experts by Experience helped by continuously referring to the main issue: How can we make the care experiences of people in prison better in practice (and not just in theory)? Our project has shown the importance of being flexible in research methods and being open to lived experience researchers, as it makes the project so much more valuable and meaningful.”