Remote research and ethics during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly had a wide range of direct and indirect impacts on the lives and work of the people of the Mekong region. In this blog, we focus on how the pandemic has affected our ability to conduct ethical research, and the roles that remote (including online) research activities can play to ensure the SUMERNET ethical principles and standards are upheld.

The ethics of remote research refers to research involving the remote acquisition of data from or about human participants, typically using the internet and associated digital technologies. This includes the selection and recruitment of participants, seeking informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, data integrity, privacy and security, among other components of research design and data collection.

Remote research poses various potential challenges and limitations, including compromised data quality, risks to confidentiality, security and privacy, and excluding certain people or groups who may not have access to or the ability to use technologies needed for remote research. Ethical remote research requires proactively assessing and mitigating these risks and issues, and continuing to uphold the six ethics principles of SUMERNET.

Here are our recommendations and guidance notes for all SUMERNET members to consider when conducting remote research.

Integrity

The research teams pay greater attention to scientific rigor in research design, data validation, and data collection process while doing remote research. It is crucial for researchers to understand that remote research is more difficult to control over research procedures and environment conditions which could lead to invalid and unreliable data. For example, the researcher team might not be aware of participants environment conditions (e.g. a noisy home or co-working spaces) and their reaction and response to those conditions.

Respect

The research teams have a good practice of recruitment, informed consent, withdrawal procedures and protection of data associated with online participants and data collection. It is important to pay special attention to anonymization and confidentiality of data when dealing with sensitive information or vulnerable groups from remote research. Thus, researchers should fully-inform online participants about how the data they provide are stored and secured, while also highlighting that they have a right to withdraw from the research at any time.

Responsibility

The research teams are responsible for informing and obtaining participants’ consent as well as safeguarding the right, privacy, and dignity of all research participants during and after data collection. Researchers need to assess whether the remote research exposes the research participants to additional threats to their privacy or potential harm. It is crucial to consider that risks must always be assessed against benefits.

Competence

The research teams demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and ability to conduct remote research and manage potential risks from conducting and delivering remote research. It is critical for the research team to reflect on potential risks and plan for ways to address the issues.

Social equity

The research teams need to incorporating social equity and conflict sensitivity throughout the remote research process. It is important to have a justified criterion for recruitment and selection of participants, and provide equitable resources and service to all participants. There should be no social obligations for research participation, especially for vulnerable groups, and researchers should recognize that the remote research process can affect vulnerable groups and researchers have a responsibility to protect them and ensure no harm is caused.

Ethical balance

The research teams need to differentiate how ethical principles and its application may differ between face-to-face and remote research activities. For example, remote data collection raises several issues relating to privacy, confidentiality, and data protection. The researchers must make a sound judgement of what is ethically appropriate in this context. Researchers also must balance the different concerns and takes steps to implement ethical principles in ways that are respectful to all views and values.

In sum, remote research has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic and digital transformation era. The considerations of research ethics while conducting remote research not only protects research participants but also creates reliable and valid data which is of central importance to scientific research in SUMERNET. If you want to read more about the ethics of remote research, we recommend the following resources

The SUMERNET Ethics Guideline is available to download here.

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This story is part of the following project

SUMERNET 4 All: Engaging with water insecurity in the Mekong Region

Related people

Sustainable Mekong Research Network

Building research for policy towards sustainable development in the Mekong Region

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