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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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Researching together: the value in collaboration when researching poverty during COVID-19

By Kayleigh Garthwaite, Ruth Patrick, Maddy Power, and Geoff Page

At the beginning of March, as universities started to close their campuses and it emerged we wouldn’t be returning to our offices for some time, it became clear that our usual practices and ways of carrying out research were about to change massively. Some of us will have been thinking about how to shift our existing research online, or wondering how to best document the effects of the pandemic. Others were considering if they should even be doing research at all.

Rapid response calls for research funding were everywhere. We started working together on a bid for the Nuffield Foundation’s call, which focused on social scientists conducting COVID-19 research in real-time to capture people’s experiences of the social, cultural, and economic impacts of the pandemic. When bringing the bid together, we were conscious of the many ethical issues connected with carrying out a research project on poverty with a participatory focus during a pandemic. While we were nervous – and at times uncertain – about the value of what we were planning, we were also acutely aware of the significant pressures families on a low income were facing due to the pandemic. We wanted to use what skills we had to try and ensure that their needs, experiences, and the appropriateness or otherwise of the policy response was placed firmly on the political agenda. We knew other researchers would also be cautious of how to navigate this in their own work on poverty and social security, too.

We started working on the Covid Realities project in April 2020. The project is exploring how families in poverty with dependent children are experiencing the pandemic, while also tracking how the social security system responds. We have sought to create a safe, online space for parents and carers to document their own experiences, and are also working with Child Poverty Action Group to draw on evidence emerging from their contact with front line welfare rights advisers, through their Early Warning System.

A significant strand of the project is working collectively with other researchers on the ‘COVID-19 and low-income families: researching together’ element of the project. This focuses on working closely with a range of research teams already undertaking fieldwork across the UK with families in poverty to support the generation of data specifically on COVID-19, and the synthesising and dissemination of relevant findings to policy makers and other key audiences. This is no easy task; working across 15 different research projects, and various research teams both inside and outside of academia requires a serious amount of planning, consideration, and above all, time. There is a huge value of working together and emphasising key findings across our diverse set of projects. However, important concerns can arise over data ownership, outputs, and key messaging, which need to be carefully thought through on an ongoing basis. But this process is already proving to be a really important way of collaborating, at a time when we are adhering to social distancing measures and working remotely.

We’ve already worked together to submit evidence submissions to parliamentary inquiries on the impact of COVID-19, drawing on emerging findings across our diverse studies. Conducting ethical research into poverty at this time means we need to try to create clear and effective chains of policy making engagement and dissemination. We know this isn’t easy; but we’re all doing our best to make sure that evidence generated can help inform current and future policymaking. Making sure we also include the voices and experiences of families in this process is central to fulfilling the aims of our project in communicating research evidence effectively and ethically.

Creating a space for researchers to think through some of these issues was something we wanted our project to be able to provide. Through this project, we want to offer researchers the support, tools, and resources to collectively think through how, and indeed whether, to carry out research on poverty during the pandemic. The idea is to create a place for honest discussions about what has or hasn’t worked well; a forum in which we can consider ethical debates and dilemmas together.

As part of this, we’re hosting bi-monthly webinars exploring topics that are central to researching poverty during COVID-19, and we’re hosting an ongoing blog series to unpack key issues that researchers are grappling with. So far, we’ve hosted blogs on whether we should be doing research during the pandemic at all, alongside others that have reflected on how we can be sensitive to participant fatigue around COVID-19 – should we really be asking people more questions about it when many people will associate the virus with fear, trauma and grief, or might just be fed up of thinking about it at all?

Already, it’s obvious there is a genuine interest and real value in trying to think through these ethical, practical, and methodological challenges together. There is a very real danger that requests to take part in research could be experienced as insensitive and inappropriate given the scale of the demands and pressures people are facing on a daily basis. We’ve written elsewhere about our concerns over placing additional pressures or strains on low-income families at a time of uncertainty, when they may be experiencing both physical and mental ill health, worsened hardship, and could possibly be grieving for lives lost in the pandemic.

We also need to fully consider the emotional impact on researchers themselves. Maintaining the role of researcher requires more emotional effort than before. What do we do when the interview is over? Our support mechanisms of colleagues and friends in the office next door are no longer there. Since beginning the project, we’ve had emails from people saying they’ve appreciated the chance to connect through our webinars, and to think through some of the issues they’re facing by writing a blog. Working at home can be isolating, stressful, and uncertain. Hopefully this part of our project will continue to be a collective space that helps the research community to think through, together, how we can best carry out ethically responsible research during COVID-19 – and indeed if we need to or should be doing this at all.

We would really like to hear from researchers on any of the ethical, practical, methodological – and emotional – challenges of researching poverty in the pandemic, so please do get in touch with us if you’d be interested in writing a blog or being part of our ongoing conversation.

COVID Realities is also working with parents and carers living on a low income to document and share their experiences. Find out more at www.covidrealities.org

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

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‘Is there a right not to be researched? Is there a right to do research? Informed consent and the principle of autonomy

By Martyn Hammersley & Anna Traianou

The right not to supply data about oneself is built into the principle of informed consent. But is there also a right to control the use of these data? Also, is there a right not to be researched, and does this too follow from the concept of informed consent? Finally, what about a right to research; and if there is such a right, who has this? As these questions indicate, a range of rights have been claimed in relation to social research, but the assumptions underpinning them have rarely been addressed. Yet it should be clear that these rights can come into conflict, so that we need to be clear about what would and would not be legitimate grounds for claiming them. This also requires giving attention to the very concept of right, and what different sorts of right there can be. These are the questions that we explore in our article.

They follow on from the issues that we addressed in our 2012 book Ethics in Qualitative Research (London, Sage), where we examined what count as ethical issues, and the meaning of the various principles that are central to research ethics: concerned with minimising harm, respecting autonomy, and preserving privacy. In working on that book we came to recognise some of the complexities involved in the notion of informed consent – regarding what counts as being informed, what counts as consenting, and what people are consenting to. Since it is widely assumed that there is a right to be informed that research is taking place, and a right to decide whether or not to supply or provide access to data, this led us on to thinking about the nature of the various rights surrounding social research.

However, the immediate prompt for the paper was a proposed conference in Canada that, unfortunately, did not take place because funding was not available – this was a follow-up to the ‘Ethics Rupture’ summit that had been held in 2012, organised by Will van den Hoonaard. We had been invited to contribute, and one of the issues that was to be the central at the conference was the rights of indigenous communities as regards participation in social research. We decided that this would provide an opportunity to explore the general issue of research rights. Around the same time, we had also been thinking about the nature of academic freedom, which also involves rights claims (Traianou, The erosion of academic freedom in UK Higher Education. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, 15(1), 2015, pp. 39-47; Hammersley, ‘Can academic freedom be justified? Reflections on the arguments of Robert Post and Stanley Fish’, Higher Education Quarterly, 70, 2, pp108-26, 2016). This, too, fed into our article. We explore some of the issues surrounding research rights, rather than providing definitive answers. It is our view that ethical judgments, along with those relating to methodology, must take account of the particular circumstances faced: blanket injunctions are not helpful. Different principles, and rights associated with them, need to be considered and reconciled, as far as possible, according to the particular character of the research and the situation in which it is being carried out. At the same time, it is essential that there is clear understanding of those principles and rights claims, and our aim was to highlight the need for this and to contribute to achieving it.

See full IJSRM article here.

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Conducting focus groups in a global pandemic

by Cordula Hinkes

The COVID-19 pandemic poses new challenges for researchers in the social sciences. Several research methods require communication and interaction between the researcher and respondents. Some of my colleagues were planning to conduct focus groups with consumers in multiple countries earlier this year. Due to travel restrictions and social distancing requirements, they had to put their plans on hold. Waiting for the restrictions to be lifted, they re-organized their research plans to focus on other tasks they could complete in the meantime. But as the development of the pandemic remains uncertain, they now must think about alternatives to conduct face-to-face focus groups in order to proceed with their project.

Online focus groups provide a way out of this situation. Many researchers might be hesitant to use qualitative online methods that are not well-established yet. As part of my current research, I conducted both face-to-face and synchronous text-based online focus groups, implemented in the form of web chats. This approach helped me to explore relevant methodological advantages and disadvantages. Based on this experience, I identified key aspects to consider during the preparation and implementation of synchronous text-based online focus groups. These include the size and composition of the groups, the discussion process, the moderator’s lack of control, and technical issues.

With respect to group composition, an obvious benefit of online focus groups is that people from different locations can be brought together. In my study, the focus groups were composed of participants from all over Germany, which would have been doable in a face-to-face setting. The online setting instead allows for the participation of target groups that are otherwise difficult to reach, such as physically disabled persons or people living in rural areas. Further advantages result from this mostly anonymous environment including that participants felt more comfortable discussing sensitive topics, and potential power imbalances became less influential.

On the downside, it is difficult for the moderator to manage the discussion due to the synchronous nature of the discussion process. The lack of visual and vocal cues aggravates this problem and makes it hard to capture feelings or moods. I experienced that participants who type rather slowly found it difficult to keep up with the pace of the discussion. Some were still formulating answers to a question, while the discussion had already moved on. Another major issue is information threading, meaning that the group discussion splits into parallel conversations on different topics.

The moderator’s lack of control also extends to the discussion environment. After one session, I noticed that one respondent had copied and pasted a statement from a website as a response to one of my questions. This was something that previous research accounts of focus groups had not prepare me for and could lead to serious problems for the validity of this method. In my article published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, I elaborate on these aspects in more detail and provide recommendations on the selection of suitable chat software to reduce the risk of technical issues and disturbances. It is important to keep differences between online and face-to-face focus groups in mind; but with good preparation, some disadvantages of remote discussions can be overcome. Synchronous text-based online focus groups are a method worth exploring – not only in times like these.

Read full IJSRM article here.

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Why Questions Like “Do Networks Matter?” Matter to Methodology: How Agent-Based Modelling Makes It Possible to Answer

By Edmund Chattoe-Brown

“Scientists tend not to ask themselves questions until they can see the rudiments of an answer in their minds. Embarrassing questions tend to remain unasked or, if asked, to be asked rudely” -Peter Medawar.

Disciplines and research methods are often arbitrarily divided by the assumptions they make about the social world. Economics is based almost exclusively on its own definition of rationality which is a minority interest (and widely regarded with scepticism) in almost all other social sciences. Statisticians focus on finding “big picture” patterns in “usual suspects” variables while qualitative researchers emphasise the role of agency, interaction, and context. While this state of affairs may be adequate under the normal academic divisions of labour, it creates a particular problem for interdisciplinary research and research intended for policy. In interdisciplinary research, different (and often entrenched) assumptions must somehow be reconciled so that the outcome really is collective insight rather than simply a ragbag of disconnected “business as usual” sub-projects. In policy research, we need to be confident of all the things that actually seem to reduce crime, not just the subset that criminologists (or economists or sociologists or statisticians or ethnographers) decide that their field should attend to.

But if we want to address this problem scientifically, we need an approach that can represent different organising beliefs about the social world fairly and effectively (which quantitative and qualitative approaches, for example, notoriously cannot do with each other’s insights). If we can represent two different views of the social world using the same framework, we can then examine how much difference it makes if we assume one thing rather than another. The argument of my article (after laying out the nature of this problem) is that a form of computer simulation known as Agent-Based Modelling (Chattoe-Brown 2019) can be developed to offer such an approach. Agent-Based Modelling is increasingly recognised as a technique that offers distinctive advantages to social science in representing process and fundamental heterogeneity (not just in “variables” but also in behaviour) and  in analysing systems where simple individual interactions can lead to counter-intuitive aggregates, so-called complex systems displaying emergence (Chattoe-Brown 2013). This representational richness, based on describing social processes explicitly, allows the technique to avoid “technical” assumptions (made purely on analytical grounds) and to focus instead on the effective use of different sorts of data to justify building models in one way rather than another. (It is thus not only the technology that is distinctive but its associated methodology and relationship with different sorts of data.)

Therefore, most of the article is devoted to laying out and analysing a “worked example” concerning the social aspects of disease transmission, illustrating how Agent-Based Models operate in general and how they can be designed to answer the kind of questions that separate different fields of research. For example, does the presence or absence of social networks “matter” to the behaviour of systems? Some areas (like Social Network Analysis) take it for granted that networks do matter while others like large scale statistical analysis (with no less empirical success) analyse social behaviours without reference to network variables. To address this question, then, we can design an Agent-Based Model In which the social network can be “switched off” while all other aspects of the social process described remain the same. Any differences in the resulting behaviour of the system, therefore, necessarily arise from the presence (or absence) of social networks alone. We are effectively controlling for model assumptions independently. The result obtained from analysing this example is that static social networks matter considerably to the dynamics of disease transmission while evolving social networks make little additional difference. (Like a lot of social science, these results might be considered unsurprising with hindsight but that tells us more about hindsight than it does about the social world!)

Although the article uses the single example of networks as an aspect of social process, another aim of the article is to point out that many important social science debates tend to hinge on mere assertions endorsed by different disciplines which this approach could make a constructive contribution to addressing. For example, is decision behaviour rational, adaptive, habitual, or imitative as different disciplines assert? This debate is unlikely to progress scientifically without a technique for exploring how different kinds of decision making may give rise to distinctive patterns in data that we could discover. The same applies to the opposition between the statistical quest for “big patterns” and the qualitative emphasis on detail. Can suitably designed variants of Agent-Based Models show when “detail matters” and when it may “wash out” to leave big patterns? This sort of approach would be particularly valuable in analysing educational attainment, for example, where individual, interactional, and structural elements are all clearly in play. Being able to move these different positions forward from a “is, isn’t, is too” style of argument should be a major contribution to interdisciplinarity and more effective policy.

Of course, since writing this article, the importance of being able to draw on the best evidence from all relevant disciplines and methods has been made hugely more topical by the COVID pandemic. To tackle a real problem (which in this case is literally a matter of life and death), we need ways of understanding how geography, networks and social behaviour interact with diseases, the physics of PPE and surface contamination and many other aspects of the social process (like who cares for children when schools are closed). Simply biting off parts of the problem using existing approaches and studying them in isolation will almost certainly not be enough to produce effective policy. This article thus shows yet another way in which Agent-Based Modelling can make a distinctive contribution to advancing social science.

See full IJSRM article here.

References

Chattoe-Brown, Edmund (2013) ‘Why Sociology Should Use Agent Based Modelling’, Sociological Research Online, 18(3), article 3, August. doi:10.5153/sro.3055

Chattoe-Brown, Edmund (2019) ‘Agent Based Models’, in Atkinson, Paul, Delamont, Sara, Cernat, Alexandru, Sakshaug, Joseph W. and Williams, Richard A. (eds.) SAGE Research Methods. doi:10.4135/9781526421036836969