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Partnership: The key to powerful Aboriginal health research

“I think what makes a great partnership with Aboriginal communities is having a shared idea. If we can agree on a shared problem, a shared way of looking at the solution and working together towards that solution, that’s when a project is successful.”  Professor Annemarie Hennessy: Dean of Medicine, Western Sydney University

Better research starts with you

The Aboriginal community is the most over-researched population in the world. Despite this, very little research meets the needs of the community. While there are numerous guidelines for co-creating research with Aboriginal communities, many of them fall short in practice. 

This guide is designed to help researchers engage with Aboriginal communities in culturally appropriate ways. It was co-created with Aboriginal elders and the community, to inspire more meaningful research outcomes.

The power of partnership

As researchers, we want our research to have impact. To do that, we must work in partnership with Aboriginal communities. We must foster a culture of respect, trust and community. Only then can we co-design, collect, represent and disseminate data in ways that meet the needs of the Aboriginal community.

Start with a yarn

The quickest way to develop trust with Aboriginal communities is to start a conversation. Aboriginal communities are big on getting to know people outside the boundaries of work. A good yarn can reveal a lot more about a community than any research methodology ever could.

Lead with community

If we want our research to impact a community, we must think like a community. Aboriginal culture is about bringing people together. It’s about sharing ideas and working together for the benefit of all. Unlike the Western biomedical model, which is singular, Aboriginal health research must speak to the physical, social, emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing of the entire community. 

Create mutual respect

True partnership starts with cultural humility. It’s the idea that no one way or culture is the right way. Instead, it’s being open to new ideas, learning from each other and looking at solutions together. It’s creating a sense of mutual respect. Respect for the research and for Aboriginal ways.

Decide what’s appropriate

Each Aboriginal mob has its own cultural nuances. What’s culturally appropriate for engaging one group may not be for another. 

The following resources are useful to understanding what is culturally appropriate when engaging Aboriginal communities. However, Aboriginal communities and organisations are best placed to advise on best practice.

Important guides to read

AIATSIS Guidelines for Ethical Research in Indigenous Studies

NHMRC The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007)

NHMRC Keeping research on track 

NHMRC Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities

NHMRC Keeping research on track II

Lowitja Institute Researching Indigenous Health: A practical guide for researchers

Lowitja Institute Supporting Indigenous Researchers: A practical guide for supervisors

Lowitja Institute An Evaluation Framework to Improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health

MJA Ten principles relevant to health research among Australian Indigenous populations

International Indigenous design charter

Ngaa-bi-nya Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program evaluation framework

Steps to success

This checklist can be used as a step-by-step guide to conducting collaborative research projects with Aboriginal communities. Use it in conjunction with the Partnership video and Applied Cultural Proficiency training for the best outcomes.

Steps to success and measures

Confirm your core values fit with indigenist research

  • Completed Maridulu Budyari Gumal website’s on-line Applied Cultural Proficiency for Researching in Indigenous Communities learning module, and/or the cultural competence education at your organisation.

Embed a capacity building methodology

  • Use of an appropriate methodology such as Community Based Participatory Action Research; Dadirri; the Dilly Bag Model; or the model best suited to your community research.

Know your country and community leaders

  • Letter of support from relevant community organisation and/or elders.

Be ethics-minded

  • Ethics application supported by your organisation, the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council; your host Aboriginal community organisation/s.

Collaborate with appropriate research bodies within your organisation

  • Cultural endorsement of your project (for example, Western Sydney University’s Elders on Campus Committee, and/or Community Boards in the host Aboriginal Organisations).

Ensure your project demonstrates research reciprocity

  • Intellectual Property rights are agreed on and shared across research partners as appropriate.
  • Measurable long-term benefits to community (as determined by the community).

Evaluate and translateyour research 

  • Evaluation of the research and outcomes from an indigenist lens (for example, using the Ngaa-bi-nya Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program evaluation).
  • Research is translated into outcomes and outputs useful for researchers, policy makers, health practitioners, and your host community.

Support your research to be an agent of change in Aboriginal communities

  • Demonstrate community ownership of research project and process.
  • Demonstrate capacity building within Aboriginal communities (for example, by the inclusion of Aboriginal Researchers in research leadership positions). 

Ask the community

Ask a question, check a fact, or keep up-to-date with Aboriginal research etiquette with help from the Maridulu Budyari Gumal |Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Clinical Academic Group.


Aunty Kerrie Doyle 

Lead Maridulu Budyari Gumal | Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Clinical Academic Group

Professor of Indigenous HealthWestern Sydney University

Chris Pitt

Project OfficerMaridulu Budyari Gumal | Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Clinical Academic Group

Find out more about the Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Clinical Academic Group

Recording of the SPHERE Adaptive and Platform Trials Information Session

A link to the recording of the Adaptive & Platform Trials Information Session held on the 16th November 2021 by the Maridulu Budyari Gumal (SPHERE) Clinical Trials Platform.

Congratulations to Ms Ainslie Cahill AM

Maridulu Budyari Gumal - Sydney Partnership for Health Education, Research and Enterprise (SPHERE) is delighted to announce that Ms Ainslie Cahill, SPHERE’s Leader in Consumer and Community Involvement and Engagement, has been appointed as a member of the Council for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). We congratulate Ainslie on her appointment which is clear recognition of her contribution to, and expertise in, Consumer and Community Involvement in research.

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