Managing risk and equity in collaborative research

By Alisa Zomer and Selmah Goldberg

1. Alisa Zomer (biography)
2. Selmah Goldberg (biography)

How do the perceived costs, benefits and risks that researchers envision compare to reality when a project is implemented? How can we best support equitable exchange and decision-making for all actors involved in research study design and implementation?

We have developed a risk and equity matrix to stimulate systematic consideration of potential impacts for stakeholders, researchers and others involved in a research process, to ensure that risks and benefits of research collaborations are distributed in a more equitable manner.

The risk and equity matrix is meant to:

  • Kickstart difficult conversations on topics that are often thought about, but not captured or discussed during the collaboration process;
  • Systematically and transparently lay out imbalances and power asymmetries before research begins;
  • Encourage teams to spread risk and benefits more equitably;
  • Help teams articulate and document common knowledge, build trust, and set the foundation for an open, honest working relationship;
  • Provide teams with a benchmark or baseline to revisit and revise original decisions about the collaboration design;
  • Document the collaboration process for use in research reports for partners and in annexes for pre-analysis plans; and,
  • Help donors understand potential impacts of proposed projects and processes to make better decisions about which research projects should receive funding.

For each party involved in the research, this involves completing a matrix, such as the one shown below, that considers:

  • Costs
    These are any material or intangible items that must be given up in order to achieve the study goals. Costs might include payments such as time, personnel, or spent political or social capital. Costs can’t be directly mitigated.
  • Benefits
    These cover any expected or potential positive outcomes for the different parties involved in the research, including material or intangible gains like compensation for time, new knowledge, hard resources (services, hardware, etc.), capacity-building (skills), or reputation-building.
  • Risks
    These are possible harms including a comprehensive list of expected and unexpected events that may happen (for example, in the field) and that could negatively impact any actors involved. The risks can also be annotated with analysis of levels of likelihood and severity (low to high).
  • Mitigation
    This references plans to alleviate any potential risks identified for specific actors. For example, addressing threats to personnel safety and well-being in the field includes both designing research protocols to be carried out in teams of two, using low-cost technology, and having regular check-ins to address any unexpected problems that may arise; as well as having a communication and escalation action plan ready in case.
Risk and equity matrix template (MIT Governance Lab, 2020b)

Such matrices should be filled out for everyone involved in the research, including:

  • All stakeholders, including practitioners, civil society partners, government actors, informal and traditional authorities (eg., community leaders, religious, traditional, or tribal chiefs), businesses
  • All researchers, from lead researchers to research assistants and study managers (some risks and their mitigation may be covered in institutional work health and safety reviews)
  • Research subjects, noting that these are generally covered in institutional ethics reviews
  • Other actors, such as donors and the media.

Process issues

As far as stakeholder engagement is concerned, filling out the matrix is ideally a joint exercise between the academic leads and each stakeholder group. Conversation prompts include:

  • Look at the different categories, are any of them lopsided? Do risks seem equitably distributed?
  • If it is lopsided, is there a way to shift the intervention or research design to change this?
  • Are the mitigation plans specific enough to implement? Is there an accountability mechanism or fail safe in case something goes wrong?
  • Have mitigation measures been budgeted for sufficiently?

There should also be follow-up to double-check that stakeholders are still comfortable with risks they have accepted, along with the process and decision-making that led to that acceptance.

The matrix can be useful at three different stages of the research:

  1. Planning phase of the collaboration, before major decisions on the research or intervention design, and budget, are set in stone
  2. A mid-point check-in to revisit the matrix and see if anything needs to be reconsidered or updated
  3. End of the project when it is important to document critical lessons: What went according to plan? What changed or was unexpected? What takeaways can be noted to improve outcomes for next time?

The following questions can help assess how well the relevant issues have been reviewed. The parties involved ask themselves if they have been:

  • Specific: Are your responses tailored to the actor and clear about the extent to which people are being affected (eg., ‘10 hours per week’ instead of ‘time costs’)?
  • Comprehensive: Do your answers include a range of considerations beyond time, money, and physical safety? For example, political, reputational, professional, and emotional factors.
  • Realistic: Do researchers have the time, ability, and authority to implement mitigation strategies? Are the strategies feasible and measurable (eg., ‘weekly calls to facilitate communication’)?
  • Balanced: Conduct assessment at various time periods to understand immediate and long-term effects of intervention to inform larger programming goals.
  • Vague: Are your answers too brief, non-specific, or not concrete enough to evaluate (eg., ‘no greater risks than everyday risks’ or risks broadly categorized as high, medium or low without explaining what was at risk and why)?
  • Repetitive: Are you using generic answers, or copying and pasting answers across the different actors?
  • Inconsistent: Are you giving much more attention to one category or actor than another? For example, sometimes people give much more consideration and detail to describe benefits to various actors rather than costs, risks, or mitigation.

Concluding questions

Would you find such a matrix useful in your research? What tools or processes do you use to ensure risks and benefits of research are more equitably distributed? Are there other factors or processes that should be taken into consideration based on your experience? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the matrix.

To find out more:
MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) (Alisa Zomer and Selmah Goldberg). (2020a). Risk and Equity Matrix. Version 1, Engaged Scholarship Tools. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Governance Lab: Boston, United States of America.
MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) (Alisa Zomer, Varja Lipovsek and Selmah Goldberg). (2020b). Workbook. Version 1, Engaged Scholarship Tools. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Boston, United States of America.
This guide and workbook for using the matrix are available at:
Much of the text in the blog post is taken verbatim from the guide and workbook.

Biography: Alisa Zomer is the Assistant Director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Governance Lab focusing on developing new strategic partnerships and translating evidence into practice on issues related to citizen engagement and government responsiveness. MIT Governance Lab is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Biography: Selmah Goldberg is the Assistant Director of the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS) / Humphrey Fellows Program in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Department of Urban Studies and Planning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

4 thoughts on “Managing risk and equity in collaborative research”

  1. Many thanks for this instructive post! I’d be happy to learn more about experiences & examples of mitigation strategies; and how the joint reflection on cost, benefits and risks may lead to new ways to balance lopsided aspects in one of these.
    One rather ‘technical’ question regarding the matrix template: Could it be that the descriptions in the lower two quadrants have been switched?
    Risks = References plans…
    Mitigation = Include a comprehensive list of expected and unexpected events that may happen….
    If I’m right, then the scale from low to high may also be moved from the mitigation quadrant to the risk quadrant? (Or could you please explain what it means in the mitigation quadrant?)

    • Thanks for catching that, Sibylle! You are indeed correct and the quadrants must have been flipped during layout and design. Will work to correct it as soon as possible.

  2. All care agencies, in facing the complexity of demands for service, donors, technical advisors, governments, etc. are finding forming collaborative partnerships with other agencies essential. The process of such partnerships has many similar characteristics to those discussed here for collaborative research teams. The development of the Matrix for other forms of partnerships would be a significant contribution to a field of endeavor which until now has been driven by legal and financial criteria. Thanks for your work.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bruce. Agreed, that legal and financial criteria can be easier to quantify, whereas risk and equity considerations can be much more nuanced and context-dependent. Our aim with the Matrix tool was to provide guidance on how to have these discussions in a more structured way to ultimately improve collaborations for all parties involved.


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