How the pandemic has transformed research methods and ethics: Three lessons from 33 rapid responses

Drawing on their experience working with 90 researchers worldwide, Helen Kara and Su-ming Khoo discuss the increasing complexity of the digital divide and new ethical dilemmas.

17 November 2020

Helen Kara and Su-ming Khoo

China News Service/Getty Images

Researchers working on samples from local residents at a mobile laboratory at the Daxing District Sports Center in Beijing, China.

A scant five months ago we set out to create an e-book on Researching in the Age of COVID-19. Our call for chapters – despite the strict 2.5-week timescale – yielded over 100 submissions.

Published with Policy Press as part of their Rapid Response series, we now have not one but three e-books, subtitled, Care and Resilience, Ethics and Creativity. Each has 11 chapters and all 33, collectively, provide a fascinating insight into the wide range of methods and ethical approaches being used across the globe.

This post is based on information from the 90 researchers worldwide – from Tonga, Finland, Brazil, India, Ghana, the US, and many other countries – who contributed to the books.

Researching in the Age of COVID-19

Helen Kara and Su-ming Khoo

Lesson 1: Digital methods have yielded flexibility and creativity in research

You won’t be surprised that much research has been done online, but you may be interested to know that there are many more options than moving in-person interviews onto Skype or Zoom.

Working on the gendered socio-economic implications of the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe, Emmanuel Ndhlovu learned that not all his participants had Skype accounts, but they did all have WhatsApp.

He found the flexibility of this platform particularly helpful because he could send questions to his participants and they could choose whether to respond through voice notes or typed notes. If clarification was needed, he could call a participant using WhatsApp. This method saved time for participants and saved time and expense for the researcher.

WhatsApp also proved useful in the UK. Nicola Gratton, Ryan Fox and Teri Elder support participatory research among community researchers who have experienced multiple disadvantages. At the start of lockdown, the group was dismayed by the withdrawal of weekly research meetings.

A WhatsApp group provided a helpful substitute and facilitated several shifts in the methods and focus of data collection, which encompassed photographs, blogs, diaries, poems, a lockdown recipe book, a ‘lockdown survival kit’, and podcasts. This process had positive impacts on wellbeing and relationships, and led to a stronger and more resilient research team.

The online pivot has also generated creative research methods. Vanessa Braun, Victoria Clarke and Naomi Moller used story completion with adults to investigate rule-breaking in lockdown in New Zealand and the UK.

Participants were presented with fictionalized ‘story stems’ to complete in writing, a non-intrusive technique which gave participants a high level of control over the data they provided as well as providing an outlet for some strong emotions.

Getrude Gwenzi used an online diary method with children in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. Nicola Jones and her colleagues worked with young people in Jordan, Lebanon and the Gaza strip, using diary methods, phone interviews, and digital storytelling within a participatory approach that built on existing relationships from ongoing longitudinal research.

Lesson 2: The digital divide has become more complex

The ‘digital divide’ featured strongly. Etivina Lovo, studying research ethics in Tonga, wrote of the challenges she experienced in trying to move research with Indigenous peoples online. Deborah Ikhile’s community health worker participants in rural Uganda didn’t have laptops, and she solved that problem by enlisting the help of a community mobilizer.

Natalia Reinoso Chávez and Reyes Castro, working with displaced Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people in Colombia, experienced connectivity difficulties, scarce internet facilities, and cultural and generational gaps in understanding and use of the internet. These and other experiences demonstrate that the ‘digital divide’ is not a simple binary.

Researchers are using secondary data to solve some of these problems. Paramjeet Chawla, studying urban youth capabilities in India, found that although searching for and obtaining databases could be onerous, the data itself had much more potential than she originally thought.

Rafael Goldstein, Rosana Vasques and Maria dos Santos, doing research with waste pickers in Brazil, used data and outputs from previous research, videos, and posts and photos from social media to build a repository about their participants.

Lesson 3: The pandemic has transformed the ethics of research

Researchers have also been grappling with ethical dilemmas (and trilemmas and quadrilemmas). Vanessa Malila, who works in international development, tackles head-on the COVID-induced tension between individual rights/responsibilities and collective wellbeing.

Through a wide-ranging exploratory literature review, she identifies common ethical questions and trends, and suggests that adaptability and nimble decision-making are key to conducting ethical research in a crisis.

These are certainly qualities we see in the contributions to these e-books. Helena Vicente and her colleagues in the EU are studying students’ perceptions of science. They had planned to hold Science Camps in six European countries, bringing together large groups of students and experts for discussion and debate.

Instead, they devised a novel method of holding these events online, taking care not to turn them into just another online class.

They made good use of pre-event preparation options for participants, kept the participatory online sessions as short as possible, and offered incentives for attendance. This was a swift and resource-intensive process, yet early indications are that it was worthwhile.

The first online event received high levels of participation, more geographical diversity than the researchers could have achieved with an offline event, and participants showed high levels of satisfaction.

A crisis that affects everyone, no matter where they live or how privileged or marginalized they may be, overturns outdated paternalistic Euro-Western ideas that researchers must protect vulnerable participants.

In a global pandemic, anyone may be vulnerable – researcher and participant alike – and this shifts the power balance in research relationships. Oliver Hooper, Rachel Sandford and Thomas Quarmby reflect on their research in the UK children’s social care systems to ask a vital ethical question: when crisis strikes, should existing research be continued, or new research conducted, at all?

Other chapters support the suggestion that, at the very least, stopping to rethink research plans when a crisis hits, rather than carrying on regardless, is an ethical imperative.

The pandemic has evidently created a lot of challenges for researchers. Nevertheless, these accounts show that extraordinary times also present opportunities to do really interesting, ethical, creative research.

Helen Kara and Su-ming Khoo are editors of three rapid response e-books on Researching in the Age of COVID19. Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and also teaches research methods and ethics. Su-ming Khoo is a senior lecturer in political science and sociology, and leads the Environment, Development and Sustainability (Whitaker Institute) and Socio-Economic Impact (Ryan Institute) Research Clusters at NUI Galway.

This article was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog.

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