Ten principles relevant to health research among Indigenous Australian populations

Lisa M Jamieson, Yin C Paradies, Sandra Eades, Alwin Chong, Louise Maple-Brown, Peter Morris, Ross Bailie, Alan Cass, Kaye Roberts-Thomson and Alex Brown
Med J Aust 2012; 197 (1): 16-18. || doi: 10.5694/mja11.11642
Published online: 2 July 2012

Working with Indigenous communities towards research that is relevant, effective and culturally respectful

Essential principles
1. Addressing a priority health issue as determined by the community

No group is more aware of the health inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians than Indigenous Australians themselves. Researchers need to work in close partnership with the community so that their own objectives and ideas do not mask the community’s own priority areas.3 This will require both parties to learn how to work together to manage potentially conflicting agendas, including differences in priority perceptions, community politics and interpretation of findings. The communities and participants need to be engaged as equal partners in all phases of the research process, with a flexible agenda responsive to broader environmental demands.

5. Respecting communities’ past and present experience of research

On one level, the history of Australia’s Indigenous populations — involving forced policies of assimilation, imposed removal of children, profound and sustained social disadvantage, and dislocation from mainstream life — needs to be recognised.11 In the context of research, Indigenous Australians’ past experience of involvement in research12 needs to be understood when conducting community consultation, in order to foster support and trust. Researchers also have to be ready for communities to say “no” at any point during a study. Finally, communities have a right to expect that if they agree to be involved in research, it will be of sufficiently high quality and rigour to generate meaningful results and change health outcomes.

Desirable principles
6. Recognising the diversity of Indigenous Australian populations

Although Australia’s Indigenous population represents a small proportion of the total population (2.6% in the 2006 Census13), there is great heterogeneity among the many Indigenous groups.14 This diversity is not such an issue when studies are based within a localised geographic area (although even in small geographic areas the differences may be greater than appreciated15), but needs to be carefully planned for when implementing research (such as national population-level surveys) that may include many different language and culturally distinct groups.15

8. Preparing for Indigenous leadership turnover

Leadership turnover among key Indigenous stakeholder groups can be high.16 This occurs at both high-end governance and grassroot community levels. There is enormous, often unreasonable, pressure placed on many Indigenous Australians in leadership, both from within their own communities and from mainstream structures. Non-Indigenous researchers would do well to anticipate this in advance rather than rely on a small number of key Indigenous leaders to promote and advocate their study. Indigenous advisory committees are invaluable in offering further advice on this issue, as are local Aboriginal ethics committees and community-controlled health organisations. Maintaining close and trusting relationships with a number of local Indigenous leaders (and recognising that these may take years to establish) may help researchers prepare for such occurrences.

9. Supporting community ownership

In the past, the rights, interests and concerns of Indigenous participants were frequently ignored by non-Indigenous researchers.17 We now know that the sustainability of research projects is achieved only when there has been substantive community input and ownership.18 From the outset, research projects need to be directed by the relevant Indigenous communities, by forming Indigenous advisory committees where possible, and by researchers constantly reviewing their study goals with these committees and Indigenous staff. While this is ideal, membership of advisory or steering committees can place a substantial burden and expectation on the relatively small number of people who have the time, interest and skills to sit on them. If it is not possible to form such a committee, the role of Indigenous staff and Indigenous community members becomes even more critical.

Provenance: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Lisa M Jamieson1
  • Yin C Paradies2
  • Sandra Eades3
  • Alwin Chong4
  • Louise Maple-Brown4
  • Peter Morris4
  • Ross Bailie4
  • Alan Cass5
  • Kaye Roberts-Thomson1
  • Alex Brown6

  • 1 University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA.
  • 2 2 University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC.
  • 3 Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, Melbourne, VIC.
  • 4 Menzies School of Health Research, Darwin, NT.
  • 5 George Institute, Sydney, NSW.
  • 6 Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, Alice Springs, NT.


We gratefully acknowledge Sir Michael Marmot, University College London, who provided helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Lisa Jamieson is supported by an NHMRC Career Development Award (605837), Louise Maple-Brown by an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research (605837), Yin Paradies by a University of Melbourne McKenzie Fellowship, Ross Bailie by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT100100087), Alwin Chong by an NHMRC Senior Research Fellowship (457101) and Alex Brown by a Heart Foundation of Australia Fellowship.

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

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