covid-19, featured, Notebook

Are novel research projects ethical during a global pandemic?

By Emily-Marie Pacheco and Mustafa Zaimağaoğlu

The global pandemic has inspired a plethora of new research projects in the social sciences; scholars are eager to identify and document the many challenges the COVID-19 situation has introduced into our daily lives, and explore the ways in which our societies have been able to thrive during these ‘unprecedented times’. Given the wide acknowledgement that life during a global pandemic is often more difficult than in our pre-pandemic circumstances, researchers must consider whether asking those in our communities to donate their time and energy to participating in our research is acceptable. Does recruitment for research which seeks to explore the psychological wellbeing and adjustment of those living through uniquely challenging circumstances during COVID-19 really reflect research integrity?

There is no simple answer to whether asking people to share their stories and experiences of COVID-19 is ethical or improper. Many would argue that social research has the potential to contribute many vital insights about life during a global pandemic which are unique to the humanistic lens and approach often reserved for the social sciences; such investigations could propel scholarly dialogue and manifest practically in recommendations for building resilient societies. However, social scientists have a responsibility to protect their participants from any undue harm they may experience as a result of their participation in a study. Thus, while social research may be especially important during a global pandemic, traditional study designs need to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic and be held to higher ethical expectations by governing bodies and institutions.

Ethical social research during a global pandemic is reflected in research methods which demonstrate an awareness that we are asking more of our participants than ever before. Simple adaptations to existing projects can go a long way in bettering the experience of participants, such as by providing prospective participants additional information on what is expected of them if they choose to participate in a study – whether it be an online survey or an interview. Projects which aim to collect data using qualitative or interpersonal methods should be especially open to adaptation. These studies may be more ethically conducted by offering socially distant options, such as online focus groups or telephone interviews; adopting multimethod approaches and allowing participants the opportunity to contribute to projects in a medium which is most suitable for them may also be an ideal approach, such as by allowing participants the option to participate in online interviews or submitting audio-diaries conducted at their own discretion.

Attention should also be given to the various details of the research design which pertain to participant involvement more specifically. Does that online survey really needto include fifteen scales, and do they really need to ask all thosedemographic questions? Do online interviews really need to exceed thirty minutes and is it really necessary to require participants to turn their cameras on (essentially inviting you into their homes)? The ‘standard procedures’ for collecting data should be critically re-evaluated by researchers in consideration of the real-world context of those from whom they wish to collect data, with the aim of upholding their commitment to responsible research practices. Ethics boards should also aid researchers in identifying areas of their research designs which may be adapted to protect participants. This additional critical perspective may highlight participation conditions that may be arduous for participants, but which may have been overlooked as part of a traditional research design. 

Research during unprecedented times should also aim to provide a benefit to participants who generously donate their time and energy despite experiencing various transitions and changes in their own personal lives. While some researchers may need to devise creative solutions to meet this aim, many research methods in the social sciences have the inherent potential to serve as an activity which provides a benefit to those who engage in their process. For example, researchers may opt to collect data through methods which have a documented potential for promoting psychological wellbeing, or which are also considered therapeutic mechanism. Such approaches include methods which ask participants to reflect on their own experiences (e.g., audio-diaries, reflective entries, interviews with photo-elicitation) and those which focus on positive thoughts or emotions (e.g., topics related to hope, resilience, progress). Beyond these recommendations, researchers should also consider whether they really need participants at all. There are many options for conducting valuable research with minimal or no contact with participants, such as observational methods, content analyses, meta analyses, or secondary analyses. Some may argue that research during a global pandemic should only be conducted with either previously acquired or secondary data; others may argue that primary data collected voluntarily from willing participants is entirely ethical. Either way, respecting participants and their role in our research is always necessary. Beyond the requirements of doing so to uphold institutional research integrity expectations, it is our individual responsibility to ensure we, as researchers, are protecting those who make our work possible by assessing vulnerability, minimizing risk, and enhancing benefit, of participation – to the full extent of our capabilities.

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