Tamzin Furtado: What Global Health Trials has taught us about research capacity building

Recently the research community, Global Health Trials, celebrated its fifth anniversary. In five years, Global Health Trials has evolved dramatically as the needs of its audience emerged, and today we reflect on what this process has taught us about the concept of research capacity building in low and middle income countries (LMICs).

Global Health Trials is a community driven platform which aims to strengthen research capacity by providing a place where researchers can collaborate and share their knowledge about how to conduct health research around the globe. It has had over 140,000 visitors, who’ve come from over 130 countries around the globe. Many have made use of the guidance articles, resources, downloadable templates, discussion boards, eLearning courses, and research tools which have been donated by researchers who are keen to build capacity by contributing to this open access body of knowledge.

The initiative started as a resource library and discussion board, overseen by expert panels. It allowed users to share their own resources, but also to ask questions and share their advice, knowing that they were doing so in an environment where experts were on hand to ensure quality of information. Responding to needs and requests of its users, Global Health Trials has morphed into an evolving platform with numerous features that guide the process of conducting a research study; both in terms of online resources and local events organised by users, and with applications such as the popular Training Centre, research Site-Finder tool, and Process Map. In fact, the project has been so successful that Global Health Trials is now its own niche area within the wider Global Health Network, which encompasses all the projects above and more, providing an open-access set of tools, resources, and community platforms for specific types of research or roles. It has become an online science-park for the global health research community.

So, what has this evolving initiative taught us about capacity development?

1) Community driven content is empowering
Global Health Trials’ popular resources, whatever their format (articles, eLearning courses, templates, discussions etc.) have been donated by its community, which provides three key benefits. Firstly, they are pragmatic—they’ve been created by people who’ve been involved in similar research before, and are therefore designed to help overcome common problems. Secondly, they’re from a global community and not branded or affiliated with any one organisation, meaning that users feel they have equitable access and rights to use the materials. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, users are empowered by the ability to share their own materials with others, providing them with the opportunity to contribute their experiences to an important global body of knowledge, and also with the chance for online publication.

2) Develop capacity by developing researchers—career support is vital
Since its launch, any career support initiatives within Global Health Trials have proved particularly popular. These have ranged from free face-to-face workshops, free eLearning courses, publicising scholarships and courses, and ‘Career Development’ month, with expert panel discussions and resources designed to help researchers develop their career, such as assistance writing CVs and cover letters. This demonstrates the need for such initiatives in LMICs, and the importance of building on this—developing research capacity by developing the skills and knowledge of researchers.

3) Evolve with your users
One benefit of community driven platforms is that gaps in capacity are brought to light, and the expertise of the community can in turn inform the development of new tools and resources to fill these gaps. Global Health Trials’ continuous evolution has been based on the needs of its users; for example, researchers in LMICs consistently discussing the difficulty in finding new research studies to collaborate on led to the development of the Site-Finder tool, which brings together new research projects with relevant research sites who are seeking collaborations. Similarly, a gap in research training in research project management led to a free face to face workshop in South Africa, which is currently being transformed into an eLearning course which will be available free and open to all on the Global Health Training Centre in due course.

4) No faffing: users want quick, easy access to high quality information
The most popular items on Global Health Trials are the eLearning courses, downloadable templates, and resource articles. Many users simply come, download what they need, and use it in their daily work, and the most pragmatic step-by-step articles are the most popular. Feedback suggests that other items such as news and discussion boards are appreciated, but not the primary reason for return visits.

5) Local support is needed, alongside global initiatives:
Global Health Trials’ success is a result of the communities created by its users, who volunteer to form local research networks. The remit of these regional hubs is to determine the needs of local researchers, and conduct activities, supported by Global Health Trials, to help to build capacity. Often this support comes in the form of free skills-sharing workshops for clinical research, but could also involve initiatives such as webinars, forming local networks to share lab capacity or training opportunities, conducting research together, and much more. This initiative is at its most powerful alongside the global community provided on the web platform, where users can also share and use material on a global rather than local level.

What will the next five years bring to Global Health Trials? Well, it will depend on what its users need—but there will certainly be more training opportunities, more career support, more resources, more local initiatives, and hopefully more research capacity as a result.

To celebrate its birthday, Global Health Trials wishes to thank its many dedicated collaborators and members, and to invite others to come, participate, and be part of this important global phenomenon.

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Tamzin Furtado is a project manager for the Global Health Network.

Competing interests:
None declared.