As a research student it is probably clear by now that you are expected to keep working if possible, from home. Universities and HEIs in the UK take significant guidance from UKRI in the development of their own policies. UKRI has said that their funded students are expected to consider and develop alternatives to your original plans to allow you to continue your research. https://www.ukri.org/news/coronavirus-impact-on-ukri-supported-research/ Other funding bodies may adopt a different approach but your institutions will almost certainly adopt this position.
I was planning research interviews or focus groups, what can I do?
Any research design at any time involves considerations of:
A. The best methods to generate answers to your research question, balanced against what is possible and what is required for the award of a doctorate; the ideal balanced against the reality, if you like.
B. An application for Ethics Approval, the detail of which will depend upon your methods and the ethical risks involved in your research. Risks to the research are outlined and mitigated. Any significant changes usually require re-approval.
This has not changed no matter what stage of your doctorate you are at, and requires regular review, even under normal circumstances. Now that we have a new normal, you will need to review your methods.
If you are in the early stages, this is the time of year when many of you will be thinking about piloting your designs or if it is highly iterative, undertaking first steps in generating data. You can plan to use methods that involve social distancing, such as telephone interview. But these may not be the ideal. So you will need to understand and explain what difference it might make to your process and findings, both in terms of the epistemology and the ethics.
But we don’t know how long this will last.
So plan for the worst and hope for the best. If and when you have done your thinking, reading and discussion in the design of your research, you will have an idea of what your ideal approach is. You may be able to move towards that ideal approach over time; your ‘Plan B’. If you are lucky enough to be able to move to your plan B, the nature of plan B should not come as a surprise to anyone, whether that is your participants, your supervisor or the ethics committee.
That sounds like a lot of work.
It is, but planning and reviewing is a normal part of the PhD process. You will have to decide how detailed Plan B needs to be. As outlined above, any research design should include an identification of risk and mitigation. If taken seriously this is what a novice researcher is learning about; the epistemological issues and the ethical. It’s just that you are already experiencing a major limitation to your research. You have to consider what difference it makes ethically and epistemologically if this particular risk decreases. You can use this material as part of any review, upgrade or confirmation process. Yes ladies and gents, the review process isn’t just a tick box exercise and a check of your literature review.
If you are a late stage doctoral candidate, you have probably collected most of your data, but even if there is some small amount to be collected, you may consider the advice for those in the earlier phases.
I’m right in the middle, help!
For those of you in the middle of collecting data or about to start, this is probably very stressful for you. First, it is time to dig out that research design plan, any risk assessment, and your ethics approval document that you worked on earlier in doctorate; perhaps as part of your First Review or Upgrade or Confirmation Process. Unless you wrote it within the last few weeks it is unlikely that you included global pandemic, as a risk in your design. None the less, it will give you a reminder, should you need it, of what your plan really was and give you a focus point for considering your alternatives, perhaps including some you had previously ruled out.
What are the practical solutions to interviews?
You will have chosen face to face interviews for a reason, and therefore the methods which replicate that most closely are probably most suitable e.g. Skype, FaceTime, FaceBook Messenger, WhatsApp video call. Depending upon your participants they may be nervous or reluctant to use these methods, but given the change in circumstances, many people who would never have dreamt of using these tools (perhaps including you), are embracing them enthusiastically.
What about the telephone?
Telephones are brilliant for large numbers of individuals who are at a distance, but there are technical issues around recording the speech which you will have to overcome (beyond the scope of this blog). And more importantly you presumably discounted this tool for a reason. Some people do not communicate well over the phone and you lose the subtleties of communication associated with face to face interviews. But with larger numbers this disadvantage can be overcome by the fact others are willing to reveal more personal detail and depth of detail when talking on the phone, especially on sensitive topics. So you may need to reach out to more people to get the depth and richness of data that you need.
What about focus groups?
Why were you using focus groups? If was purely for practical purposes (and a utilitarian approach isn’t always bad) e.g. to gain access to larger numbers in an efficient manner then the telephone may be your solution. If however, it was because you need to access a cultural or a co-constructed narrative, or witness discourse with a group, small groups can be convened over social media apps like WhatsApp (4 users), House Party (up to 8 users), or one aimed at professionals, Zoom, (up to 100 in the free version). https://www.forbes.com/sites/rebeccabellan/2020/03/24/what-you-need-to-know-about-using-zoom/
If you are researching with organisations they may have the facilities to allow for video conference calls, or already have teams set up in Apps like Zoom.
What about online chat-rooms and messenger services?
These are definitely an option, but presumably you have chosen or are leaning towards closer human contact for a reason or reasons. What are those reasons? Does written communication really serve your research purpose better than spoken, even with the technical and data protection challenges of video conferencing and telephone calls? If it does then really, the method that best suits your research purpose is the one to use.
Considering risks associated with telephone and video conferencing.
There will be risks that are associated with your research topic and audience, but the key risk in this kind of research is the privacy and protection of data. For example will phone numbers or user names be revealed to others? If so, do they realise that? Can you get permission to share that data within the groups? What are the risks to you and the group members if they do agree?
You are expected to continue your research where possible, even if that is from home.
· Review the decisions you’ve already made. Consult your annual/confirmation review documents including any risk assessment and ethic approval application.
· Look at the tools available.
· Consider which tools most closely fit your purpose and be realistic about their limitations.
· Modify your design and participant information
· Resubmit for ethical approval if design changes are significant or new ethical risk identified
Remember that necessity is the mother of invention. Every challenge presents an opportunity. You may find that this challenge exposes you to ways of thinking and researching that you may never otherwise have considered or conceived. So stay calm, stay in touch with your supervisors and administrators, consider you options, make new plans and do your research, and remember you are not alone in this.
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