Introduction Fieldworkers are part of the system that promotes scientific and ethical standards in research, through data collection, consenting and supporting research, due to their insider cultural knowledge and fluency in local languages. The credibility and integrity of health research, therefore, rely on how fieldworkers adhere to institutional and research procedures and guidelines.

 Objectives This study mapped out existing practices in training, support and performance management of fieldworkers in Africa, described fieldworkers’ and their managers’ experiences, and lessons learnt. A consultative process, involving field managers from 15 international health research institutions, was used to identify appropriate ways of addressing the challenges fieldworkers face.

Methods In phase 1, we conducted 32 telephone interviews with 20 field managers and 12 senior fieldworkers from 18 major research centres in Africa, Medical Research Council-UK and the INDEPTH Network Secretariat. In phase 2, we held a 2.5-day workshop involving 25 delegates, including 18 field managers from the institutions that were involved in phase 1 and 7 additional stakeholders from the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP). An earlier report from phase 1 was published in BMC Medical Ethics in 2015. Data transcribed from the interviews and workshop proceedings were analysed thematically using NVivo V.10 software.

Results Most institutions employed fieldworkers, usually with 12 years of formal education and residing within the geographical areas of research, to support studies. Although their roles were common, there were marked differences in the type of training, professional development schemes and fieldworkers support. Fieldworkers faced various challenges, with the potential to affect their ethical and scientific practices.

Discussion Fieldworkers undertake vital tasks that promote data quality and ethical practice in research. There is a need for research institutions to develop a structured support system, provide fieldworkers with interpersonal skills training, and provide space for discussion, reflection and experience sharing to help fieldworkers tackle the practical and ethical challenges they face. 

The results from this study underscore the need to establish and strengthen institutional support for health research fieldworkers. There is a need for further research to develop a deeper understanding of which fieldworkers’ institutional support systems exist and what implications these systems have on fieldworkers’ scientific and ethical practices.

Available at:

BMJ Open 2019;9:e028453. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2018-028453