Case study: The Research Shop at the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute

This case study is part of a set of case studies developed by SciShops to investigate different models of science shops and community-based participatory research.

The Research Shop is based at the University of Guelph in Canada. Running since 2008, it is a well-established science shop with close relationships with many local community organisations. Community research projects are undertaken via an intern-style programme using employed student research assistants. The Research Shop is managed by the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI), which acts as an intermediary organisation to foster collaborative and mutually beneficial community-university partnerships.



nown as the Research Shop, the science shop was started at the University of Guelph in 2008, following the success of two large projects on families, work and well-being funded through university alliance grants. Its goal was to focus on community-engaged research which addressed community research needs rather than those of the university. The Research Shop is one of several programmes run by the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI).

CESI is based within the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences, with research strengths in community and families, environment, food and health thus giving the Research Shop mainly a social sciences focus. CESI runs a number of programmes in addition to the Research Shop, including a community engaged teaching and learning programme (supporting the design of university courses), a programme on knowledge mobilisation (to support campus-identified dissemination needs), and more recently, has set up the Guelph Lab.

The Guelph Lab[1] is different type of collaborative initiative co-directed and jointly funded by CESI and the City of Guelph and is aimed at exploring solutions to either shared or city-based policy or implementation challenges. It provides an innovation environment in which new ideas can be designed, developed and tested using more exploratory and creative methodologies and interdisciplinary teams.

Business model and organisation

As part of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, the Research Shop receives core funding from the University of Guelph.  It is well resourced, employing one full-time staff member and an average of 14 student research assistants and four student project managers per year. CESI has an additional three permanent members of staff, three full-time members of staff on limited contracts and a further three part-time staff.

 Research projects are undertaken via an intern-type programme designed to give participants training in community engaged research methods as well as other project management skills. The Research Shop reliably completes an average of 10 projects per year.

 Graduate students are invited to apply for a number of student research assistant positions at the Research Shop, committing to two semesters (or more) of work of five hours per week. Each year between 30 to 50 students are engaged across CESI’s programmes, including an average of 18 at the Research Shop. In the past, Research Shop student research assistants have received a nominal honorarium, however, from 2018 all CESI students are being paid on an hourly basis. This change has already had a positive effect on the quality and diversity of the applicants applying. Students do not gain any recognition in the form of course credits. The student research assistants are supported throughout the programme by staff and project managers. Project Managers are former student research assistants who act as mentors to student research assistants and manage one to two projects per semester.

 The Research Shop does not charge any fees, however, occasionally if a community partner has received a project grant, it may contribute a nominal amount to cover some of the research costs.

 The Community Engaged Scholarship Institute has recently rejuvenated a Community Advisory Board, which consists of senior representatives of NGOs, community groups, and other community stakeholders, in order to provide strategic guidance and mentorship as well as a level of accountability across CESI’s programmes.

The research process and relationship with stakeholders

The Research Shop does not need to advertise but receives research requests directly from community organisations, including NGOs and social service providers as well as other grassroots organisations. In some cases, this involves a group of community organisations coming together with a shared identified need. Relationships with community organisations are often developed via personal contacts. For example, many of the students and CESI staff members sit on the boards of various community initiatives, task forces and community health centres, giving them in depth insights into community needs.  

 CESI also organises an annual engagement event aimed at bringing together representatives of community organisations to explore ways of enhancing their community-university partnerships as well as showcasing existing research projects. Held in public spaces, such as shopping centres, they provide an opportunity to raise awareness of their activities. This process has previously resulted in new enquiries.

 Projects in the Research Shop are undertaken by a small team of student research assistants, supervised and mentored by Project Managers, all under the supervision of the Research Shop Coordinator. The programme has developed over time into a robust model with clear project planning structures and methodologies for scoping projects. For each project, a work plan is developed involving the community partner, students and Research Shop Coordinator, to agree the timeline, deliverables and responsibilities.

 Research projects must be based on engagement and reciprocity. CESI stresses that they do not offer a service and they will turn projects down if they do not meet these two key principles.

Examples of research projects

The Research Shop’s main focus is on social science methodology and issues around the environment, poverty alleviation, food security, social justice and inclusion. However, the topics of research are diverse and reflect the applied research and knowledge needs of all their partners.

 When the Research Shop began, the majority of its projects consisted of “rapid response” research that required a quick turnaround of two to six weeks and often consisted of literature reviews, reports and environmental scans. Rapid response projects are now very limited, often seeing only two per year.

 Now that relationships with community organisations have matured, the Research Shop is often involved in longer-term multi stage research that spans several projects over a number of years. For example, doing scoping work for a project, then running a feasibility study and finally being involved in the evaluation of the project over a period of time.

 Two examples of projects are:

Towards Common Ground[2] is a partnership of 14 social and health service organisations working together to create a sustainable collective planning model for Guelph and Wellington through the development of a local open data portal.  The Research Shop has been involved in conducting a number of research projects to inform the development of the initiative, including qualitative and quantitative baseline evaluations, and visual representations of wellbeing indicators.

The SEED[3] is a small grassroots organisation working to improve food health and increase access to healthy food for Guelph’s low-income community members. The Research Shop has been involved in four projects for the SEED, including a scoping study and feasibility study for a mobile food market, involving interviews with residents.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

CESI practices community-engaged scholarship and has clear guidelines for community-engaged scholars to support responsible research practices, relating to aspects such ethical behaviour, effective dissemination etc. (See Key Terms and Values[4]).

Research projects are carried out as mutually beneficial partnerships and community organisations are fully involved in all stages of the research process to ensure the co-creation of new knowledge.

 In addition, students are encouraged to be responsive, reflective, and to learn from their mistakes in their relationships with community partners.

 A key part of the agreement with the community organisations is that all research outputs must be open access and publicly available. Outputs are delivered to partners for dissemination and also published on the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute website and in the university library using a common report template.

Impact and evaluation

An evaluation framework for CESI and the RS is under development and will be implemented in the coming years. To coincide with its 10th Anniversary in 2019, CESI has been undertaking research on the impacts the Research Shop has had for community partners and students over the past decade. The results will be presented at a Research Shop 10th anniversary symposium in November 2019 and published as a journal article. In the past, evidence about impact has often been anecdotal and learnt about through on-going contacts with the community organisations. Sometimes, the Research Shop is involved in the evaluation of a community initiative that has come about as a result of earlier work undertaken. For example, scoping and feasibility work undertaken by the Research Shop often results in the implementation of the actual project.

 Longer-term impacts are project-dependent but include informing or changes to policy, the establishment of new initiatives, and changes to way services are delivered.

 A further impact of the Research Shop’s work can be seen in the opportunities that it creates for students working on the research projects. Many students develop strong networks and contacts through their engagement with the community organisations. In some cases, this leads to employment opportunities and a number of students have subsequently set up non-profit organisations of their own.

Success factors

  • Consistent high-level support within the University as well as effective leadership within CESI.
  • Having a strong vision, clarity of purpose and demonstrable impact. CESI has a clear mandate, vision statement and strategic plan.  Having a clear mandate empowers staff to take on the right projects and know when to say no, thus avoiding mission drift and overwork.
  • Commitment to building strong partnerships with community organisations over a long period of time. Through good communication, listening, humility, learning from mistakes and a willingness to learn, CESI has built up a good reputation and relationships built on trust.


A central challenge of community engaged work centres on the need to balance support for campus community (CESI provides, eg, workshops and consultation to support faculty and student capacity development, project development and support) with its simultaneous mandate of addressing community-identified research priorities. As CESI’s profile and networks grow, so too do requests for support: these spark important conversations about balancing responsibilities, ensuring appropriate use of CESI’s time and resources, and helping to develop capacity – in both campus and community contexts – for ethical, engaged, mutually beneficial research collaborations.

 Institutional challenges include finding ways to gain more recognition for their type of work.

 Some research results are not peer reviewed or recognised in the same way and the work can be time-consuming. The University of Guelph has been looking at ways to address university culture, policies and practices to recognise and reward community-engaged scholarship and has made some progress in this area.

 For CESI staff, the main challenges relate to institutional constraints around time and workload. The key principles of success (trust, collaboration, communication) take a long time to nurture.

 The NGOs that they work with often suffer from capacity issues, poor job security and workload issues, particularly if they work in frontline services.

Future development

Ambitions outlined in its strategic plan include: 

  • Raising the profile of CESI and its work at a regional and national level through participation in relevant networks, increased scholarly contributions, and better communication of activities and outputs.
  • Becoming a more active intellectual centre for community engaged scholarship and recognised as scholarly practitioners by generating scholarship about community engagement. CESI has an opportunity to become more of a recognised expert in this field. One possibility would be for CESI to host postdoctoral research fellows to conduct research into its practices and CES processes, to share with colleagues in the field and inform the advancement of CES.
  • Integrating more arts-based methodologies into the research projects.
  • Diversifying its people and practices and ensuring that CESI is genuinely serving the community in its full diversity. This will involve reviewing the diversity of the NGOs that they work with to engage new partners as well as ways to attract different types of students, which has already begun.


Case study updated September 2019


Contact details


CESI Director: Elizabeth Jackson

Research Shop Coordinator: Karen Nelson