In the last few months, all facets of society have had to adapt to evolving circumstances owing to the ongoing pandemic. And COVID-19’s effects on academia and social science research have been just as severe as in other sectors and professional areas. Due to the need for physical distancing, laboratories around the world have wound down or restricted operations, save for those involved in developing vaccines, while panicking governments have promulgated policies that threatened the careers of immigrant researchers. Such changes haven’t only suspended work; in many cases, they have prompted researchers to reconsider their careers altogether.
For example, one COVID-19 survey found that close to a third of neuroscience researchers in Britain contemplated leaving their scientific discipline due to a lack of resources, personnel and ability to continue experimental work. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, female scientists – especially those with children – and early career researchers have been forced a decreasing amount of time to research.
Before COVID-19, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were implemented widely in the development sector, since many economists and policymakers consider them to be the gold standard to evaluate policies. RCTs are a prominent research technique in the social and natural sciences as well.
An important aspect of RCTs and experiments that researchers regularly take for granted – at least until the novel coronavirus began to spread around the world – is the physical presence of facilitators, participants, researchers and other support staff.
However, the pandemic has ensured these and other practices that rely on human interaction, including field surveys, can’t be so easily conducted for a while. Another important research tool is the in-depth personal interview, used in qualitative research. Researchers who use such interviews have adapted during the pandemic by transitioning to telephonic and video interviews.
All together, many researchers are changing the methods, tools and processes to conduct their studies, and modifying their questions to receive data collected online, starting new studies incorporating survey data only or both. An incredible example of the former is a researcher who was able to collect infant data via a modified Zoom experiment.
Surveys are important and have been used in research even before the pandemic but they can’t replace other research methods. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, researchers have amped up online survey data collection. While this can be efficient and help cross geographical boundaries, researchers in most cases have little to no control over who does and doesn’t take their survey.
For example, the demographic details of respondents heavily impact the generalisability of results. Many researchers use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – “a crowdsourcing website for businesses to hire remotely located ‘crowdworkers’”: Wikipedia – to conduct surveys, but only individuals who can afford internet services can participate.
Psychology researchers are using social media and text messages to recruit individuals for studies. Behavioural science researchers are using popular socio-cultural norms and ideas to suggest ways to increase compliance with social-distancing and other preventative measures. And social science researchers are attempting to understand behaviours specific to, and arising from, the pandemic. This includes perceptions about preventative measures, relief efforts by the government and barriers to physical distancing, among others.
But the academic advantage the pandemic proffers, in terms of allowing academics to use it as an opportunity to publish more papers and thus elevate their prospects for career enhancement, is offset by a potential decline in the quality of research.
For example, searching for ‘COVID-19’ and ‘domestic violence’ on Open Science Framework yielded 50,370 results (projects, preprints, registrations, files, etc). Although academics need to publish in order to sustain their careers, especially in these trying times, what they are publishing may be suffering from myopic methodologies and questions. A problem already plaguing psychology research (partly) due to a shortage of resources is the skewed distribution of research outputs. A large portion of COVID-19 research in psychological sciences is currently based on samples too small for the results to be generalisable.
Academia finds itself at a juncture with endless possibilities and potential innovations: will we go back to the status quo or learn from our Zoom-modified experiments? Only time – and more research – will tell.
Anchal Khandelwal and Hansika Kapoor are researchers at the departments of economics and psychology, respectively, at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai.