Notebook

Online qualitative surveys?!?

By Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke

A qualitative survey? What about face-to-face interaction? All the non-verbal cues? Probing and following up? Depth of data? These are the types of sceptical questions we hear a lot when we talk about our research using qualitative surveys. Our doctoral students have even been told at that they must supplement their qualitative survey data with another data source such as interviews, otherwise they will not have the depth of data they need. Sceptical questions like these are partly what motivated us to write about our experience of using online qualitative surveys for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology (LINK TO PAPER). We were also motivated by our enthusiasm for this method and wanted to share with other social researchers why we think it is a valuable addition to their methodological toolkit. We’ve used qualitative survey data over the last decade or so to explore everything from students’ responses to a gay pride T-shirt (Clarke, 2016, 2019) to male body hair removal discourse (Terry & Braun, 2016). We have also supervised numerous students using surveys – including Elicia Boulton, Louise Davey and Charlotte McEvoy, our three co-authors on this paper.

Examples of exclusively, or predominantly, qualitative surveys are relatively rare, but predominantly quantitative surveys with a few ‘open-ended’ questions are common. So how did we come to develop an enthusiasm for surveys as a qualitative method? Here we must credit our inspirational PhD supervisors – Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson – both great methodological innovators and ‘early adopters’, who encourage their PhD students to ‘experiment’ with research methods. Indeed, the small body of empirical research based on qualitative survey data mostly comes from Celia and Sue’s PhD students (e.g. Frith & Gleeson, 2004; Peel, 2010; Toerien & Wilkinson, 2004), and their students in turn (e.g. Hayfield, 2013; Jowett & Peel, 2009; Terry & Braun, 2017).

What is a qualitative survey then? Usually a series of questions focused around the topic of interest that participants answer in their own words. But qualitative surveys are not limited to questions and written responses, other possibilities include drawing tasks (see Braun, Tricklebank & Clarke, 2013) and responding to stimulus materials such as audio and video clips. Qualitative surveys are necessarily self-administered – if they were administered by researcher, they would essentially be a rather structured qualitative interview that would fail to reap the benefits of ‘messy’, participant centred qualitative interviewing. Qualitative surveys can be delivered in a variety of formats (hardcopy by post or in person, email attachment) but delivery via online survey software is pretty much the norm now, and that delivery mode is the focus of our discussion in our IJSRM paper.

When we think of (quantitative) surveys – as the sceptical questions we opened with illustrate – we typically think of breadth and more prosaically, larger samples. Whereas qualitative research is typically associated with depth and small, situated samples. How then can a method typically associated with breadth, and quantitative research, have anything to offer qualitative researchers? To appreciate the possibilities of qualitative surveys, we first need to recalibrate how we think of depth – shifting from associating it with individual data items, as is typically the case, to assessing depth and richness in terms of the dataset as a whole. This is not to say that individual survey responses can’t be rich, they can, and we include a powerful example in our paper from Elicia Bolton’s survey of experiences of sex and sexuality for women with obsessive compulsive disorder. Not all responses will be like this though – well, certainly not in our experience of using qualitative surveys so far. But an entire dataset of 60, 80 or a hundred responses will provide a rich resource for qualitative analysis. Survey data also have their own unique character, they are not simply like reduced interview data. They are very focused, dense with information – to the extent that a dataset that runs to the same number of pages as a small number of interview transcripts can feel like a lot of data! Our students typically cycle through an initial panic at the start of data collection or piloting – the responses aren’t very detailed! – to feeling delighted, or even overwhelmed, by the amount of information in the final dataset.

Okay, so survey data can be rich, but why would I use a qualitative survey though, rather than do some interviews over Zoom or Skype, with all the advantages of virtual interviewing? Let’s start with some of the practical and pragmatic benefits of qualitative surveys – for us as researchers. There are no bleary-eyed video calls at 6am or 11pm. Data collection can be relatively quick – and there’s no transcription! – leaving plenty of time for data analysis, which is particularly useful if working to a tight or fixed deadline. We note that we are not advocating for quick (and dirty) as inherently good, however; good quality qualitative research takes time, and using a qualitative survey can allow time for the slow wheel of interpretation to turn when we do not have all the time we would ideally want and need to complete our research. In research with no funding, there are few or no costs associated with data collection (especially if you have access via your institution to online survey software). When it comes to student research, we think qualitative surveys can open up research possibilities – because there is no direct interaction with participants, there are likely fewer ethical concerns around inexperienced researchers addressing sensitive topics. For example, one of our undergraduate students researched young adults’ experiences of orgasm using a qualitative survey – it’s highly unlikely they would have received ethical approval to research this using interviews (see Opperman, Braun, Clarke & Rogers, 2013).

For participants, there are even more practical benefits – not least that they can participate when it is most convenient for them. Louise Davey noted that her participants often completed her survey on experiences of living with alopecia early in the morning or late in the evening; unlikely times for an interview. Online survey software will also usually allow completion over multiple sessions, so participants can complete the survey in several short bursts, fitting participation around their schedule, commitments, and indeed energy. This is one of the ways in which online qualitative surveys can give participants a greater sense of control over their participation. Surveys also typically ask less of participants – they do not have to spend an hour or two talking to a researcher at a particular time, they do not have to travel to meet a researcher in person. They also have the advantage of a strong sense of felt-anonymity (in practice, online qualitative surveys are not completely anonymous) – this can be vital for some topics. In Charlotte McEvoy’s research, for instance, on therapists’ views on class and therapy, some participants commented that they were glad of the anonymity of the survey, they would not have shared what they did – and we can speculate, perhaps even not participated at all – if they were invited to take part in an interview. This connects to another advantage of qualitative surveys – that they have the potential to open up participation for groups for whom face to face participation is challenging in various ways. This includes some disabled people, people with caring responsibilities, people with visible differences – such as alopecia – who may feel anxious about being visible to and open to scrutiny by the researcher, and people for whom social interaction with strangers can be profoundly anxiety inducing (such as people with OCD).

This is just a taster of some of the benefits and possibilities of qualitative surveys. We hope we have enticed you to read further about qualitative survey literature and discover the joys, and challenges, of this method for yourself!

See full IJSRM article here.

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Researching loneliness in a pandemic: touch and touch-technologies along with its methodological challenges

By Lili Golmohammadi

In this post, I discuss the challenges of moving research workshop methods online, and reflect on the losses and gains of this shift.

In early March 2020, I began fieldwork preparations for a series of research workshops bringing design-based methods to social science. This interdisciplinary methodology involved a three-part creative workshop series designed to support participants to explore the complex areas of loneliness, touch and digital touch. The workshops used a range of methods including mapping, and rapid prototyping (designing in 3D with accessible materials such as tape, paper, card, and recycled packaging). In-between the workshops, participants would be invited to engage with cultural probes. This is an informal method of information-gathering where participants are given packs of materials (such as disposable cameras, and pre-addressed and stamped postcards) and accompanying ‘evocative tasks’ to aid their explorations. The workshops are a part of my PhD research, which aims to expand understanding of the connections between loneliness, touch, and digital touch technologies.

Lockdown implications

I had facilitated a pilot workshop at the Wellcome Collection in November 2019. As lockdown began, I quickly realised it would no longer be safe to hold workshops in person, nor would it be ethical to hand over (or post) the cultural probe packs to participants. Clearly, my research design needed adapting! I found myself facing the (rather overwhelming) challenge of researching touch wholly online, at a distance, and without the shared tactile resources that I had begun to develop for the probes.

Adapting methods to a digital medium

I decided to create a ‘digital probes’ kit and set up a dedicated website. I researched work on digital probes and found a few examples, most of which focused on sending individual tasks to participants’ mobile phones. I decided to develop this approach for my study – I wanted to maintain the ethos of cultural probes as a ‘pack’ to give participants the option to select which tasks they wanted to respond to. The website also hosted activity resources for the workshops, including activity outlines and photos of the tactile resources I’d used in the Wellcome pilot workshop (mapping worksheets, mood boards featuring cuttings from everyday household materials and touch vocabulary printed onto sticky labels). Participants could return their completed probes via email or the study WhatsApp number.

Losses and gains

The tactile resources had worked really well in the pilot (which mapped connections between loneliness and touch) and in another affiliated study. They functioned as prompts through which participants could explore tactile experiences, memories and associations framed around loneliness. In the online workshops, participants still drew on the touch vocabulary, but not the materials of the tactile mood boards. Resources were no longer physical and tangible; they could not be spread out across tables and shared and were instead confined to the space of the screen. This constraint, however, opened up the tasks in other ways:

Cultural probes and rapid prototyping are design-based methods, which have been employed in recent social science research on touch and touch technologies to provide an accessible, tactile and bodily way for participants to engage with emergent ideas or technologies. Traditionally, the materials and resources used are provided by the researcher / facilitator, and participants select from these. Probe kits especially are often carefully curated and designed with high-quality materials and tasks. In moving online, I was providing the tasks but not the materials to carry them out, and participants were required to use their own resources.

A gain of this was that participants integrated materials or objects with specific personal histories. In the online workshops, participants sometimes got up to demonstrate objects in their homes to illustrate their point. One participant introduced an old giant teddy bear bought to comfort her during the loneliness of her marriage breakdown, now a source of joy. Another left their screen to recover a hot water bottle in sheep form that brought back memories from 25 years ago. Being online also impacted the between-workshop probe tasks. Participants who selected the probe task to ‘make their maps tactile’, for example, produced highly personalised responses, taking cuttings from materials they’d held on to for months and even years, or placing objects from their homes on top of the maps. In addition, the online workshops enabled participants to more easily manage strong tactile boundaries. In the (pre-pandemic) pilot workshop, one participant refrained from touching the materials on the mood boards because she only felt comfortable touching materials she owned – a situation that being online removed.

While for some participants, taking part from home created an additional layer of bricolage and customisation into the speculative technological outcomes, it was a loss for other participants who found this activity difficult as they did not have the resources they wanted or needed (e.g. tape). Moving online therefore exposed inequities and highlighted the role of the material for expression. In future, it will be possible to re-introduce some of the tangibility of cultural probes, offer materials, and combine them with more digitised formats.

Losses and gains in recruitment and access

Before the pandemic, I had faced the challenge of recruiting participants to a study whose methodology involved a significant time commitment. Lockdown reduced who and what we touched and required many people to stay at home; this increased many people’s interest in touch and loneliness and their motivation (and availability) to take part. Added to this, moving the workshops online enabled me to recruit beyond London and the UK. To date, I have run the workshop series with four groups, two with people aged over 70 and two with professionals aged 25-55 working from home. I plan to run two more series with people aged 18-24 in the Autumn.

Access to digital devices and platforms was however a challenge, particularly when recruiting participants over 70 to online workshops; while many had recently learnt to use platforms like Zoom, others felt unable to navigate them with confidence. The well-known inequities of an uneven digital landscape are an acknowledged loss in the move of research online.

Lili Golmohammadi is a doctoral researcher attached to In-Touch, a 5-year ERC funded project at UCL exploring how new digital touch technologies shape the way we communicate

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Community research during the time of Covid-19: solidarity, care, and radical thinking

by James Duggan and Abi Hackett

This blog emerges from a series of discussions held online with academics, practitioners, and early career researchers interested in participatory work with children and young people to understand how we might respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown? We began affirming that the COVID-19 pandemic ‘is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’ (Roy, 2020) and a space for rewriting of our imaginations (Stanley Robinson, 2020). Writing earlier on this year, Rebecca Solnit (2020) writes of the challenges of navigating these uncharted spaces of COVID times:

“As the pandemic upended our lives, people around me worried that they were having trouble focusing and being productive. It was, I suspected, because we were all doing other, more important work. When you’re recovering from an illness, pregnant or young and undergoing a growth spurt, you’re working all the time, especially when it appears you’re doing nothing. Your body is growing, healing, making, transforming and labouring below the threshold of consciousness. As we struggled to learn the science and statistics of this terrible scourge, our psyches were doing something equivalent. We were adjusting to the profound social and economic changes, studying the lessons disasters teach, equipping ourselves for an unanticipated world.”

We may wish to hide away and protect our body and those of our loved ones from contamination and death. As citizens or politically-inclined scholars, we might hope to contribute somehow to a notional national effort, knowing that our research shapes even in small ways what matters, which life experiences are heard, and who counts. As academics employed in universities, however, we are interpolated as entrepreneurial subjects, developing our research career through delivering world-class research with excellent impact. Is COVID-19 an opportunity to be productive? We might recoil from ghoulish opportunism. We are not short of critiques of neoliberalising subjectivities, that position knowledge production and its ethics in terms of power and risk (Loveday, 2018). What is to be done? How might we re-imagine our position and relationships with the communities we work with? How might we grow, heal, make, transform and labour in a time of COVID-19? Some starting points and questions emerging from our discussions include:

1. Care

We welcome moves to develop questions about the future of society towards the notion of radical care, that is, care that operates within an anti-capitalist politics, thinking beyond the rational, purposeful and economically significant (e.g. Tironi and Rodriguez-Giralt ,2020). A similar perspective is summed up by Alexis Shotwell (2020) in her discussion of the novel Station Eleven, in which much of the plot is organised around the phrase “survival is insufficient”. That is, things and people should be valued beyond function, this involves asking, beyond survival, what does a good life look like?

  • How might we find purpose for our research beyond the notion of function and economic imperative?

2. Time

Lockdown can feel like suspended time, waiting time, waiting for the curve to flatten, unable to control or predict in the usual way or make plans for the future. We have felt busier than usual, and at the same time struggled to fill time (or both); as Solnit points out in the quote above, notions and practices linked to “productivity” or how we use our time, might be shifting.

Kim Stanley Robinson (2020) has argued that notions of time and future are significantly shifted by the pandemic. Writing about the threat of climate catastrophe, he suggests that for many in the West, we can only really conceive of the lifestyle changes necessary to avert the disaster of climate change for our descendants, some future people, in abstract terms. “The fact that these problems will occur in the future lets us take a magical view of them.” Yet, the pandemic can be seen as a parallel challenge to climate change but with a tighter timescale – how we act now (e.g. lockdown) affects our future lives, rather than our descendants. As Robinson writes, now “we are the future people”. He argues that this may offer a shift to new ways of conceptualising the future, which might have repercussions beyond the immediate lockdown.

  • How can we rethink timescales, cause and effect, linear progress or the rhythms of lived experience in our research?
  • How do shifting conceptualisations of time make our research more / less relevant?

3. Speculative Practices

After decades of marginalisation, speculative practices have become resurgent in diverse range of fields including art, design, media and education (Levitas, 2013; Wilkie, 2018). For Gorz (1999), utopian imagination functions to provide us with distance from the existing state of affairs, allowing us to judge what we are doing in the light of what we could or should do’. These speculations might invite us to encounter forms of difference, and to clarify our values in the present. Or we might envisage how our lives, communities and societies might face the shocks and uncertainties of an unpredictable future. Alternatively, emerging as a counter to techno-utopianism, Foster’s (2013) ‘future mundane’ aesthetic invites us to concentrate on the continuities and rhythms of everyday life. Here we remember the mundane activities that fill our lives (e.g. lost passwords, empty batteries) and the struggles as we navigate a world of grime and smudges in the rhythms of quotidian existence.

  • Whilst living through a pandemic, where and how might we imagine things otherwise? 

A question that has seemed to circulate like a refrain in conversations we have had with friends and colleagues over the last few months is – how can we make sure we don’t go back to normal? To a ‘business as usual’ society that was flawed, precarious, unfair and continually reproduced trauma and inequality? How, then, might we ensure research does not go ‘back to normal’ either, but slowly, painfully, begins the work to think collectively, generously and expansively about how research might become ever more caring, relevant and radically imaginative?

References

Chiaporri, M.Z. (2020). Hacia una cultura del cuidado / Towards a Culture of Care, Solidarity and Care, May 15th, Available online: https://www.solidarityandcare.org/stories/hacia-una-cultura-del-cuidado-towards-a-culture-of-care

Gorz, Andre, (1999). Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Foster, N. (2013) Future Mundane, Core 77, Available online: https://www.core77.com/posts/25678/the-future-mundane-25678

Loveday, V. (2018) ‘The neurotic academic: anxiety, casualisation, and governance in the neoliberalising university’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 11(2), pp. 154-166, DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2018.1426032

Roy, A. (2020). The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, April 3rd. Available online: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

Shotwell, A. (2020) Survival will always be insufficient but it’s a good place to start, Alexis Shotwell, March 25th, Available online: https://alexisshotwell.com/2020/03/25/survival-will-always-be-insufficient-but-its-a-good-place-to-start/

Solnit, R. (2020) What Coronavirus can Teach us about Hope, The Guardian, April 7th. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/07/what-coronavirus-can-teach-us-about-hope-rebecca-solnit

Stanley Robinson, K. (2020). The Coronavirus and our Future, New Yorker, May 1st, Available online: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future?utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR2uQEmAbT-vL9iSctXoHaToIc0lmmSw1pcj28jQr-ykynzPYeeDmEXUtcM

Tironi, M. and Rodríguez-Giralt, I. (2020). Radical care in times of COVID-19: lessons from Puchuncaví, Solidarity and Care, May 8th, Available online: https://www.solidarityandcare.org/stories/radical-care-in-times-of-covid-19-lessons-from-puchuncavi

Wilkie, A. (2018). Speculating, in Lury, C., Fensham, R., Heller-Nicholas, A., Lammes, S., Last, A., Michael, M., & Uprichard, E. (Eds.). (2018). Routledge handbook of interdisciplinary research methods, London; New York, New York: Routledge, pp. 347-351.

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Considerations for designing pandemic-friendly research

By Dely Lazarte Elliot, Dangeni, Rui He, Emily-Marie Pacheco, Dayana Balgabekova, Natthaphon Tripornchaisak and Kara Makara

Our research group from the School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK comprises two supervisors and several international doctoral researchers who occasionally engage in undertaking small collaborative research projects that are aimed at reinforcing research learning via informal platforms. Everyone actively participates in collaborative planning and decision-making, as well as working in pairs or in groups. Over the years, our group has continued to harness opportunities for mutual learning, particularly in advancing everyone’s appreciation of the research process and academic writing while building a sense of community and camaraderie among its members.

Following the successful publication of a conceptual paper on international doctoral researchers’ learning via community participation towards the end of 2019, our group again decided to embark on another small research project. Unpredictably, the pandemic started and subsequently disrupted major academic and research activities globally. Specifically, the coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the way scholars teach, learn, and conduct research.

Consequently, the foreseen grave implications of the pandemic and/or lockdown for the physical and mental health and psychological well-being of both researchers and participants took its toll and also caused serious implications for the types of research studies that were deemed ‘safe’ to undertake. As a case in point, this situation led to the majority of Master’s empirical-based dissertation projects for 2019-20 in our School to be halted due to heightened concerns about various ethics-related risks if students were to conduct empirical studies in the midst of a pandemic.

Bearing all this in mind, our group had to reflect carefully what might be an achievable project given the multiple and intertwined concerns that unexpectedly arose. In other words, the crucial question we were faced with was: ‘How can undertaking even a small-scale research project be manageable in the light of these very challenging circumstances?’ – a single question that prompted numerous carefully-thought out responses.

And so, in designing our new project, we were initially guided by the different strengths and expertise within our group – both in subject knowledge (i.e. the research focus being relatable to researchers) and research methods (e.g. a few members employed creative research methods; two members wrote a book chapter on audio-diaries; some members used an advanced approach to data analysis). On another positive note, the novelty of the pandemic and the lockdown got everyone’s creative juices flowing – not only tapping into the most important and interesting dimensions in these unprecedented circumstances, but equally, considering how to acquire these important data.

Through further discussion, we came to agree on a topic but also on a pandemic-friendly research design that we were all comfortable with. Overall, our small-scale empirical project necessitated the following considerations that:

  • maintain social (i.e. physical) distancing;
  • seek careful use of the least intrusive manner of collecting data, yet capable of stimulating reflection and deep thoughts;
  • are sensitive to researchers’/participants’ circumstances and supportive of their psychological well-being;
  • capture the depth and intricacies of the phenomenon explored
  • consider the therapeutic component of selected research methods;
  • stress strongly the ‘no coercion policy’ to participate;
  • avoid dwelling on the negative dimensions of the circumstances; and
  • ensure both feasibility and trustworthiness of the proposed project.

We then envisaged an exploratory project with a longitudinal dimension where group members serve as both participants and researchers – where data came from personal reflection during lockdown experience. With the intention of acquiring an in-depth perspective from the group members of their experience while in social confinement, we elected to employ two-interlinked methods:

  • Audio-diaries – All researchers/participants recorded a maximum of a ten-minute audio-recording at the end of every week for six consecutive weeks. Overall, each participant was encouraged to describe their experience and prevailing feelings while highlighting any crucial incidents they encountered or dealt with during the week in question. They were also asked to reflect on how their experience contributed to their evolving understanding of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Visual/drawing metaphors – At the end of the six-week period, each participant provided a visual metaphor to describe their lockdown experience – as a way of eliciting a holistic perspective of their experience to complement the audio-diary series. This was complemented by short narratives offering an explanation for what the metaphor meant, what the accompanying interpretation was, and why this mattered to the participants/ researchers themselves.

At this stage, although the analysis is now over, the writing element has just begun. With the multiple challenges that other fellow researchers may face in undertaking small projects like ours, we argue that the three considerations, i.e. use of creative, sensitive and therapeutic research methods, which enabled our group to realise our intention to undertake another collaborative research project in the midst of the pandemic are crucial in the light of these challenging circumstances. Therefore, taking them into consideration not only opens possibilities for empirical research projects, but equally importantly, they contribute to enriching the quality of the data (by eliciting in-depth and reflective insights) and making the research process as pandemic-friendly as it could possibly be.

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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.