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What does engagement mean to participants in longitudinal cohort studies? A qualitative study

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Mwenza BlellORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2021, The Author(s).Background: Engagement is important within cohort studies for a number of reasons. It is argued that engaging participants within the studies they are involved in may promote their recruitment and retention within the studies. Participant input can also improve study designs, make them more acceptable for uptake by participants and aid in contextualising research communication to participants. Ultimately it is also argued that engagement needs to provide an avenue for participants to feedback to the cohort study and that this is an ethical imperative. This study sought to explore the participants’ experiences and thoughts of their engagement with their birth cohort study. Methods: Participants were recruited from the Children of the 90s (CO90s) study. Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted with 42 participants. The interviews were transcribed verbatim, and uploaded onto Nvivo software. They were then analysed via thematic analysis with a constant comparison technique. Results: Participants’ experiences of their engagement with CO90s were broadly based on three aspects: communication they received from CO90s, experiences of ethical conduct from CO90s and receiving rewards from CO90s. The communication received from CO90s, ranged from newsletters explaining study findings and future studies, to more personal forms like annual greeting cards posted to each participant. Ethical conduct from CO90s mainly involved participants understanding that CO90s would keep their information confidential, that it was only involved in ‘good’ ethical research and their expectation that CO90s would always prioritise participant welfare. Some of the gifts participants said they received at CO90s included toys, shopping vouchers, results from clinical tests, and time off from school to attend data collection (Focus) days. Participants also described a temporality in their engagement with CO90s and the subsequent trust they had developed for the cohort study. Conclusion: The experiences of engagement described by participants were theorized as being based on reciprocity which was sometimes overt and other times more nuanced. We further provide empirical evidence of participants’ expectation for a reciprocal interaction with their cohort study while highlighting the trust that such an interaction fosters. Our study therefore provides key insights for other cohort studies on what participants value in their interactions with their cohort studies.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Ochieng CA, Minion JT, Turner A, Blell M, Murtagh MJ

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: BMC Medical Ethics

Year: 2021

Volume: 22

Issue: 1

Online publication date: 24/06/2021

Acceptance date: 18/05/2021

Date deposited: 27/06/2022

ISSN (electronic): 1472-6939

Publisher: BioMed Central Ltd


DOI: 10.1186/s12910-021-00648-w

PubMed id: 34167521


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Funder referenceFunder name
824989European Commission (Research Directorate General, Research Infrastructures)
University of Bristol provide core support for ALSPAC