June 20, 2022, by Rob Ounsworth

Conducting ethical research remotely: a silver lining of learnings from the Covid-19 pandemic

Helen McCabe introduces the Remote Research Toolkit, built to help researchers overcome challenges such as the pandemic and engage with often vulnerable groups in ethical and innovative ways.

At the end of 2019, our team were excitedly planning a project aimed at supporting survivors of human trafficking in Kenya to take control of their own narratives and images. In March 2020, we nearly pulled the plug. But survivor-participants came back to us, saying they wanted to continue the project, with one reflecting after the event that it had given her a sense of community much-needed during the isolation of Covid-19. One of the unexpected outputs of our research, then, has been a toolkit for remotely conducting ethical research, which we hope will be of use to researchers in academia, policy and the third sector for many years to come.

We all know the importance of conducting research ethically, and the stakes are even higher when working with vulnerable groups. But our protocols have – in the main – been designed for face-to-face, in-person participation (e.g. focus groups in community centres; interviewing policy-makers in their offices in Westminster; going on fieldwork trips to meet affected communities.) Covid-19 put paid to all of this.

Remote work can be extremely effective

Covid-19, though, also highlighted a whole new vista of vital research – questions needed asking and qualitative research was vital for answering them. Moreover, the pandemic has made us all more aware of the risk of exogenous shocks – be those pandemics, or natural hazards such as floods. It has hopefully also given us time to reflect on the impact of human activity on the natural world – which includes our carbon footprint. And, having moved to remote modes of working we’ve found that, while sometimes there’s no substitute for being in the same room as other living, breathing human beings, remote work can also be extremely effective.

Both new and old technologies have come into their own in the pandemic, and we have all gone from thinking “zoom” was something on a camera to making jokes about “being on mute”. This said, all technology (even “old school” pen and paper) poses risks when used in research. Given the nature of our project, we were particularly concerned to effectively navigate the opportunities afforded by, and the pitfalls hidden in, technology enabling remote research.

Giving participants creative control

Doing our research remotely was surprisingly rewarding. Teams allowed UK and Kenyan researchers to meet “in-person”, which the original budget would never have covered. Zoom allowed our participants to change their names before entering the room, which not only preserved their anonymity, but allowed them creative control over their identity. Whatsapp support groups sprang up organically among participants, providing a sense of on-going community support. Indeed, moving workshops online meant we could run more, and include more participants, than our original budget allowed. Online exhibitions mean we’ve shared our outputs with the world.

Of course there were drawbacks – workshop facilitators found themselves offering support well outside the allotted workshop times, because Zoom made it harder for people to have “side-chats” and ask specific questions in privacy; UK researchers missed the Nairobi exhibition. But overall, this was an extremely positive experience, and we hope our toolkit will help it be so for other researchers at the University of Nottingham and beyond.

Research Integrity Week 20-24 June 2022 at the University of Nottingham: find out more

Helen McCabe is an Associate Professor in Political Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations

Posted in research