Background Community engagement in research has gained momentum as an approach to improving research, to helping ensure that community concerns are taken into account, and to informing ethical decision-making when research is conducted in contexts of vulnerability. However, guidelines and scholarship regarding community engagement are arguably unsettled, making it difficult to implement and evaluate. Discussion We describe normative guidelines on community engagement that have been offered by national and international bodies in the context of HIV-related research, which set the stage for similar work in other health related research. Next, we review the scholarly literature regarding community engagement, outlining the diverse ethical goals ascribed to it. We then discuss practical guidelines that have been issued regarding community engagement. There is a lack of consensus regarding the ethical goals and approaches for community engagement, and an associated lack of indicators and metrics for evaluating success in achieving stated goals. To address these gaps we outline a framework for developing indicators for evaluating the contribution of community engagement to ethical goals in health research. Summary There is a critical need to enhance efforts in evaluating community engagement to ensure that the work on the ground reflects the intentions expressed in the guidelines, and to investigate the contribution of specific community engagement practices for making research responsive to community needs and concerns. Evaluation mechanisms should be built into community engagement practices to guide best practices in community engagement and their replication across diverse health research settings.
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