Navigating Human Subjects Research in a Time of Social Distancing

If you were to ask me what I study as a graduate student, my simplest response would be, I study people. The inspiration for my current research was a desire to understand the human dimensions of marine and fisheries related science fields and a desire to connect with people. However, due to the pandemic, I’ve been forced to reevaluate something that seems so simple and essential to my research just a few months ago. How do I continue to connect with people, in a time where we are encouraged to keep our distance?

Prior to this year, all of my data collection for my dissertation research has involved in-person human interactions. My research examines how life experiences and social identities shape marine and fisheries science related career decisions, and semi-structured in-person interviews had been my method of choice. I spent a large portion of 2019 traveling to marine/fisheries related science conferences/meetings and interviewing students and professionals who were all gracious enough to share their experiences. For my research with marine and fisheries science related professionals, I’m examining whether there are differences in perceptions of natural marine resource management across social identities by incorporating cognitive mapping card sorting into my interviews. And while I was able to collect a large portion of my data last year, I entered 2020 with plans to continue in-person interviews and the goal of completing my data collection by the end of Spring term. However, as winter term slowly began to come to an end, I quickly realized that things were not going to work out as planned, and that I would need a new approach for data collection.

Contingency planning

The week leading into the official stay at home order was rough. I spent a few days being frustrated and disappointed about all the plans that were canceled or rescheduled, but quickly realized I needed to focus on what I could control. Since my research deals with human subjects, my first stop was OSU’s Institutional Review Board’s (IRB) webpage for guidance about conducting research with human subjects during the pandemic, which stated that all non-critical in-person studies should be suspended or cancelled. My next step was to review my initial IRB  application, and while I initially planned to conduct the majority, if not all of my interviews in-person, I realized that I’d included a data collection contingency plan which stated that  “a combination of in-person and online interviews will be used… when in-person interviews are not an option, we plan to use online platforms. This simple entry in my application saved me the stress and time of having to submit a revised IRB application, and allowed for a somewhat smooth transition to online data collection. However, while video conferencing made it easy to move my semi-structured interviews to a virtual platform, moving my card sorting exercise online, presented a new challenge.

Example of a completed in-person cognitive mapping card sort

Card Sorting Data Collection with Qualtrics

My first task, during the first week at home, was to figure out how to move my card sorting exercise online. I spent the first day looking into various online card sorting platforms that I could potentially use. While there were multiple available, none of them completely met my project needs. Then I decided to explore Qualtrics to figure out if I could use its platform to develop a card sorting survey. Of all the platforms I’d researched, Qualtrics seemed the most promising. After a week of online searches for codes, multiple calls to the Qualtrics help desk, and a few test trials, I was able to develop and interview survey format that mimicked my in-person card sorting. With the use of multiple question formats and a lot of skip logic, I was able to design a survey platform that allows participants to select, group, label, and rank concept cards, as they would do in an in-person card sort, and was able to launch my card sorting survey and continue data collection at the beginning of April.

The Value of using Qualtrics for my card sorting.

Not only has Qualtrics allowed me to continue parts of my dissertation research during this time of uncertainty, I also noticed a few advantages to using the online platform compared to in-person interviews.

  1. Confidentiality Protection – In order to schedule in-person interviews, I was required to collect direct identifiers (names and emails) so I could contact participants to schedule interviews. While all direct identifiers are removed or stored separately from interview or card sorting data, they still exist, and require additional steps to protect the participant’s confidentiality.  By using an anonymous Qualtrics survey link to recruit participants, the collection and storage of direct identifiers was no longer needed.
  2. Broader Reach – The number of interviews and card sorts collected in-person were limited by my capacity to conduct one-on-one interviews. Using a Qualtrics survey for the card sorting eliminates the one-on-one scheduling needs and allows for more people to conduct the card sorting exercise at their own convenience, in various locations.
  3. Data Storage and Access – Once a participant completes the survey, the data is stored to the Qualtrics cloud, and I am able to access it immediately across multiple devices. This minimizes the need for manual data entry.

Lessons Learned 

While I’m still navigating how to push through during this time of uncertainty and how to connect with people, one lesson I learned over the past few weeks is the importance of having some form of a contingency plan. Having the option of conducting parts of my research online has truly saved me time and stress, and in some ways, has worked out for the best. While contingency plans are not always a catch all (there were definitely plans that I had to cancel or postpone), there are cases where they can come in handy and give you one less thing to a worry about, especially in a time of uncertainty.

So, although I’m taking a slightly different approach to connecting with people than I initially planned, it seems like I’m still on track to complete data collection this term. I’ll keep you all posted. Until then, stay safe!

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One thought on “Navigating Human Subjects Research in a Time of Social Distancing

  1. Many thanks for your post, Brittany! It’s a true testament to your resilience as a researcher and a good reminder about the importance of a contingency plan. I bet you’re thankful to your past self for including such forward thinking in your IRB application! It’s really great that current circumstances have opened up novel opportunities and advantageous methodologies, despite the stress and cancelled plans. Do you think that the shift in your data collection will allow you to analyze your data in new ways as well (e.g. compare the in-person data with the Qualtrics data)? Great work navigating the obstacles in front of you to continue your research and stay on track! I really look forward to hearing more about your work.

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