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Opinion

How to overcome the challenges of doing research during Covid-19

Published on 12 January 2021

Image of Rebecca Mitchell
Rebecca Mitchell

Postgraduate Researcher and Programme Manager

Covid-19 has changed the way we do almost everything. There is significant hope this is temporary, but while we continue to live under various lockdowns and restrictions, how can we carry out research that ensures the safety of the participants and researchers above all else?

Very little has been written about the methods, risks, challenges and opportunities faced, and what has is almost entirely focused on the pandemic itself. With a focus on how to minimize exclusion and carry out ethical research, this blog brings together the key lessons from what has been published (drawing in particular from Dupton’s review of doing fieldwork in a pandemic), together with learnings from researchers at the Institute of Development Studies and University of Sussex, along with other partners.

1.     Minimising exclusion

There is a risk that conducting research during Covid-19 will inadvertently reinforce existing inequalities and exclude marginalised groups further. Some groups have been identified as more likely to be excluded by research as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, including those who:

  • lack digital literacy or access to digital technologies
  • are socio-economically deprived and thus likely to have less resilience to the economic shocks precipitated by Covid
  • have lost childcare or other support needed to be able to participate in research
  • have mental health issues that have been adversely affected by Covid
  • are unwell.

In addition to this, unintentional exclusion from research can happen when:

  • research tools require a level of access to technology, excluding those without access, in particular women and low-income families
  • reaching and choosing participants requires a level of access to technology
  • participatory methods were planned, to include marginalised groups, which will be problematic to use remotely, potentially removing this vital element from collaborative research (and mitigating this with technology risks the exclusion outlined above).

So, an important question for researchers is how to ensure that they are reaching the most marginalised and invisible populations if they are not physically there? Is this even possible, and safe? And if not, should the research be changed, or wait for face-to-face participation to resume?

Some ways to overcome these problems (to an extent) include:

  • The use of community ‘mobilisers’ who could take technology to the homes of the people who need to be reached (if safe to do so), as well as providing training for research participants on how to use the technology they have.
  • Assigning research funds to enhance access to technology, such as better internet coverage.
  • Considering the use of secondary data instead of data collection; investigating more thoroughly what already exists and if it can be used to complement or replace the planned primary research.
  • Designing sampling strategies to deliberately include ‘hard to reach’ groups.

2.     Maximising ethics

Lockdowns and restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic have produced a number of ethical challenges for research, that should be considered carefully. Briefly these issues can be grouped into consent, the interview/focus group setting, and risk management.

  • Consent – Obtaining informed written consent using remote technologies can be problematic when you are not able to obtain a physical signature or discuss the process face to face. To overcome this, consent forms could be sent, discussed and returned via email. Oral consent could be considered, particularly if it’s possible to record it. This would need to be outlined during the ethical clearance process.
  • Setting – participating in online research, remotely, has been found to blur the participants understanding of the setting, in some circumstances making them ‘forget’ the research context within which the conversation is taking place, particularly when people are inside their own homes. While this offers rich data gathering opportunities, it also makes it more important to remind them that they are being interviewed and/or recorded. Some research participants have admitted surprise about how open they were during online interviews rather than in a more formal face to face setting. Remembering also that there may also be privacy issues related to participants and facilitators carrying out research from within their own homes, or potentially public spaces.
  • Risk – Ensuring that all researchers keep themselves and their participants safe, do not take unnecessary risks or feel in any way obligated to do so is vital to all research, but most especially in current circumstances. A robust participatory risk management process is essential including the perspectives of everyone involved, not just that of the researchers based in the country that is leading the research. Finding ways to ensure open communication about risk management between local researchers on the ground and the rest of the team is crucial.

3.     Overcoming practical issues

Researchers identified the following practical issues and solutions relating to carrying out research during Covid-19:

  • Contact. Levels of contact with participants will vary. If research is continuing in an area where research has previously been carried out, remote contacts should already be in place. Alternatively, it may be possible to work through community mobilisers, including some capacity building. If research in an area is completely new, identifying and working with new community mobilisers may require some initial face to face contact but this would at least minimise contacts.
  • Connectivity. Getting access to a strong enough internet connection to carry out voice or video calls is difficult. Research projects could divert travel funds to invest in improved internet connections for local researchers, research organisations and participants.
  • Communication. Communicating through voice calls and video calls makes research really difficult, compared to face-to-face contact. Using voice-notes to follow-up and continue communication with participants after an interview or focus group discussion has been a useful way to continue research and build relationships and trust.
  • Additional workload. All the potential changes to research discussed here involve additional workload. This extra work may fall to country-based teams. We need to make sure that all team members are supported and compensated appropriately and that nobody is placed under even more stress because of the research.

4.     Exploring new opportunities for different ways of working

Despite the myriad issues associated with carrying out primary research during Covid-19, there may also be new opportunities to work differently, and perhaps even improve practice. Examples of these opportunities include:

Capacity building

  • Capacity building within local partners, so that they can take on more responsibility, and lead research not just during Covid-19 but also in the future.
  • Capacity building within UK-based partners – in creating effective remote support packages for in-country operatives.
  • Using the opportunity of online activities to create cross-programmatic learning and knowledge exchange that may not have been considered in ‘normal’ times; bringing research teams together from around the world to talk through issues, such as ethics, risks, research practices and sampling strategies.

Technological

  • Using online methods to help break down the barriers for potential participants to take part in research. For example, when dealing with sensitive issues, people can feel more comfortable doing this through a screen, sitting in their own homes. And there is no need for participants to find time to travel to focus group or interview locations. If participants and ethics allow, recording sessions can provide a rich data source that may have been missed during face-to-face activities.
  • Experimenting with different digital research methods (if you follow this link – digital methods kick in at minute nine). For example, using photo scavenger hunts with smart phones to glean rich information about participants’ settings and the kind of problems they face. Other platforms such as itracks, 20/20 Research, Civicom, and Discuss.io have advanced features that enable researchers to delve more into the arts-based side of qualitative methods.

Environmental

  • Acknowledging the positive global environmental impact of reducing and stopping travel and flights for all researchers.

Considering and acknowledging the issues that research during Covid-19 can raise and communicating openly and clearly about this is key. Being open to different ways of working can create new, perhaps better ways of working that may endure, even when Covid-19 is a distant memory. Even when face to face research is possible, it may take some time to establish confidence amongst participants.

 

Becky Mitchell is an IDS researcher working on the UKRI GCRF Protracted Displacement Economies project. This research was funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund (grant ES/T004509/1).

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