It’s a well-established principle of ethical research that everyone doing research with other human beings – whether that is academic research, or interviewing people for “copy” for communications, or policy-makers wanting to meet people with lived experience whom their policies might impact – should consider the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of participants.
This needs particular consideration when doing research remotely, because of the circumstances that mean the research has to be done remotely. Sometimes, the reason you are conducting research remotely might not impact on your participant – for instance, you are using Teams to interview a policy-maker, rather than travelling to see them in-person in their office, to save on time and/or your carbon footprint. Offering an online interview might benefit your participant, as it frees up their diary. But where you are offering online interviews, even with professional policy-makers, because of a Work-from-Home mandate during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are issues to bear in mind – for instance, how comfortable will they be with you recording the interview, if their home environment is visible behind them (and should they have to reveal that to an interviewer?).
As ever, applying the basic principles of ethical research can give a guide for conducting it online. You might want to consider, for instance:
If there is increased vulnerability either because the research is being conducted remotely, or because of the circumstances which mean the research must be conducted remotely. If there is a global pandemic raging, is asking for an hour of someone’s time for an interview more of a burden than when there wasn’t? Is that a burden that, on balance, you should ask to impose on them?
Has there been a particular impact on the participant’s economic background? (E.g. are they likely to be unemployed because of a shut-down of economic activity in a pandemic?) If so, and if you are offering to cover people’s costs (e.g. in terms of their time) to participate in interviews, is this likely to be an unfair inducement, meaning people participate in order to receive the financial benefit who don’t really want to be part of the research, or share the information that you are asking them to share?
Relatedly, are participants likely to be facing additional burdens (loneliness, bad mental health, stress and/or anxiety) because of the events which had led to your research being conducted remotely (e.g. a global pandemic). If so, is now the right time to ask them to participate in your research? Is it a reasonable burden to ask them to take up? (On this, though, we should be wary of paternalistically making decisions on other people’s behalf – people may well be very keen to engage with all kinds of research during events such as global pandemics. This is one of the reasons that properly informed consent – where participants are absolutely clear that they can say “no”, that there will be no negative consequences to deciding not to engage with your research, or to withdrawing from it at any time – is so vital.)
If your research touches on anything which might be potentially traumatising (or re-traumatising), is it possible for participants to access the necessary support and after-care? It is possible to supply counselling and mental-health support remotely, but this needs factoring into your research (just as in-person support would need factoring in, in similar cases where you were conducting face-to-face research). If your project involves more than one session with participants (e.g. a series of workshops), is there a process for participants to feedback and voice how the research is impacting their well-being, potentially leading to adaptations between events? (Or the possibility to learn from good practice!)