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J Gen Intern Med. Jul 2003; 18(7): 592–594.
PMCID: PMC1494882

Community-based Participatory Research

Opportunities, Challenges, and the Need for a Common Language

In January of 2002, a call for papers featuring community-based participatory research (CBPR) was issued. The intent was to highlight the outstanding work being done in this area and the role CBPR can play in improving the care and outcomes of populations at-risk.1 What emerged from this call was more than what any of the editors expected, and has been illustrative of both the superb scholarship and community engagement occurring in CBPR and how much more can be done in refining and broadening the application of CBPR in what we do. The body of research submitted for consideration also highlights several important realities: 1) CBPR is appropriate and applicable across disciplines and within many diverse community settings; 2) the potential for CBPR to make meaningful contributions to improving the health and well-being of traditionally disenfranchised population groups and communities is very real and, in many instances, being realized; and 3) we need to do a better job of articulating CBPR to our peers and colleagues as “research-plus” that is both methodologically rigorous and that makes unique contributions not possible using other means.

The 11 original research papers presented in this Special Issue came from an impressive pool of 81 submissions. And while CBPR may seem somewhat straightforward in theory, as these articles demonstrate, the degree to which CBPR is applied and how it is represented are far more diverse and varied. The peer review process and several editor meetings for this Special Issue brought out many of the challenges inherent in CBPR. How do we define community? What is a meaningful impact? How do we distinguish between community-placed and community-based research? How do we balance the importance of the research process with the importance of the research product or findings? Is there a methodologic threshold with which to determine whether a project is or is not CBPR? What is evident from the submissions is how broadly CBPR is being applied, geographically, within specific population groups and clinical scenarios, and methodologically.

For example, Angell et al.2 and Stratford et al.3 both describe CBPR projects in rural settings, while van Olphen et al.,4 Horowitz et al.,5 and Masi et al.6 all describe urban-based research. Initiatives targeting specific vulnerable or at-risk populations are featured in work by Lauderdale et al.7 with older Chinese immigrants, by Lam et al.8 with Vietnamese-American women, and by van Olphen et al. with African-American women. Similarly, CBPR was clearly applicable in several different clinical scenarios, including chronic disease management of diabetes,5 asthma,9 and cancer treatment and prevention.10 The partners engaged in the community-based research also varied across projects and included faith-based organizations,4,10 neighborhood and community leaders,6,8 and social service and support agencies.2,3,7 Finally, the research topics and interventions themselves also reflected a wide spectrum of CBPR applications. Sloane et al. examined the degree of nutritional resources available within a community, whereas Masi et al. evaluated the application of internet-based technologies.5,11

The articles presented also reflect the broad scope of research in which CBPR can be applied methodologically. Angell et al. and Corbie-Smith et al. report on findings where CBPR was applied to randomized controlled trials,2,10 while van Olphen et al., Masi et al., and Lam et al., all report data from intervention studies with pre–post comparisons.4,6,8 Horowitz et al. and Lauderdale et al. represent good examples of CBPR applied to survey research,5,7 and Parker et al. demonstrate CBPR applied to a qualitative study.9 Finally, the article by Nyden provides an overview of CBPR and highlights many of the issues and struggles to institutionalizing and legitimizing CBPR within the broader research community from an academic perspective.12

As the science and field of CBPR advance to the next level, it is clear that several things need to occur. We need more formal training in CBPR that is more broadly available to both academically-based researchers and community members. Post-doctoral training programs such as the Kellogg Community Scholars Program13 need to be expanded beyond the current 3 schools of public health, and need to be integrated into other health professional schools and within other established fellowship and post-doctoral training programs. Additionally, career development awards sponsored by federal agencies and private philanthropies need to be amenable to proposals that engage the candidate in CBPR projects and ideally should promote this in their solicitation and review process. We also need to encourage scholarship, not only in the application of CBPR, but also in better understanding the nuances of the model, so that it can truly live up to its potential. This includes developing a common language for describing CBPR-related research in the health services literature, so that it can stand on its own merits and be appreciated for the contributions it brings to the field. One possible framework for this common language is introduced in Table 1 and is meant to serve as a resource for authors considering submission of CBPR projects to peer-reviewed journals. Finally, we need to gain a greater appreciation for CBPR as “research-plus” that is reflected in funding priorities, review criteria, community empowerment, and academic advancement.

Table 1
Proposed Process for Describing Community-based Participatory Research Findings in Health Sciences Literature

In summary, it is best to view this Special Issue as a reflection of both where we are as a research community and where we need to go. The 11 papers ultimately chosen for this issue represent a small fraction of the excellent work ongoing in many of our communities. Yet there is much more than can and should be done. As the gap in health access and health outcomes grows wider and is further defined by socioeconomics, race, language, country of origin, and other markers and designations inherent in a multicultural, multiethnic society, we need CBPR to help find the answers and sustainable solutions.


1. Aaron KF, Bass EB. A call for papers: community-based participatory research. J Gen Intern Med. 2002;17:84. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Angell KL, Kreshka MA, McCoy R, et al. Development of a psychosocial intervention for rural women with breast cancer. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:499–506. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
3. Stratford D, Chamblee S, Ellerbrook TV, et al. Integration of a participatory research strategy into a rural health survey. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:585–7. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
4. van Olphen J, Schulz A, Israel B, et al. Religious involvement, social support, and health among African-American women on the east side of Detroit. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:548–56. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
5. Horowitz CR, Williams L, Bickell NA. A community-centered approach to diabetes in East Harlem. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:541–7. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
6. Masi CM, Suarez-Balcazar YS, Cassey MZ, Kinney L, Piotrowski ZH. Internet access and empowerment: a community-based health initiative. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:524–9. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
7. Lauderdale DS, Kuohung V, Chang S-L, Chin MH. Identifying older Chinese immigrants at high risk for osteoporosis. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:507–14. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
8. Lam TK, Mc Phee SJ, Mock J, et al. Encouraging Vietnamese-American Women to obtain Pap tests through lay health worker outreach and media education. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:515–23. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
9. Parker EA, Israel BA, Williams M, et al. Community action against asthma: examining the partnership process of a community-based participatory research project. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:557–66. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
10. Corbie-Smith G, Ammerman A, Katz ML, et al. Trust, benefit, satisfaction, and burden: a randomized controlled trial to reduce cancer risk through African-American churches. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:530–40. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
11. Sloane DC, Diamant AL, Lewis LB, et al. Improving the nutritional resource environment for healthy living through community-based participatory research. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:567–74. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
12. Nyden P. Academic incentives for faculty participation in community-based participatory research. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18:575–84. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
13. Kellogg Community Health Scholars Program. Available at: http://www.sph.umich.edu/chsp/. Accessed February 25, 2003.

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