Research Ethics and COVID-19: Interview with Special Issue Editors

Categories: Impact, Other, Research Ethics, Research Roles, Research Skills

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This month MethodSpace will focus on emerging and online research methods– emerging ideas about research and how we can keep conducting inquiries during the pandemic. You will find interviews with innovative authors and researchers, original posts, and open-access resources through this link.

Since Covid-19 turned our worlds upside down, we’ve shared resources for researchers, faculty, and students on SAGE MethodSpace. I’ve been impressed to see how quickly the usually slow-paced world of academic research, writing and publishing has responded to this global crisis. Clearly, while we need to observe scholarly care, we need to get relevant work out without delay. For one example, see this interview with Helen Kara and Su-ming Khoo, about their lightening-fast effort to edit a series of e-books on Research in the Age of Covid-19. For another example, see this special issue on “Research Ethics and COVID-19” in the open-access SAGE Journal, Research Ethics. I asked Kate Chatfield and Doris Schroeder to discuss this project and why it is important.

JES. Tell us why you decided to put together this special issue?

Editors. When the lockdown in Europe began, we translated COVID-19 triage advice from German into English and one of us (KC) was invited to join a clinical ethics committee for local hospitals, hospices, doctors etc. We soon realised that knowledge of ethics can make a big difference during a pandemic. The initial idea of commissioning an article on COVID-19 research ethics from somebody we saw during a webinar developed into the ambition to edit a full issue within a few hours. Afterall, it would not be possible to capture all research ethics issues from a broad range of perspectives in a single article.

JES. How did you turn it around so quickly?

Editors. The first person we asked said ‘yes’ overnight and that was Peter Singer who is very famous in the ethics world and beyond. After this scoop, we quickly got the attention of others and we insisted on an ambitious timeline. Everybody was keen, although a small number of invitees were so overloaded with COVID-19 committees that they could not commit to our timeline. Reviewing was undertaken by us and we were very much hands-on with edits instead of the normal back and forth, requesting changes and then losing time. Of course, all final decisions remained with the authors. In several cases, it was beneficial to work across time-zones. For instance, with Nandini Kumar, Vasantha Muthuswamy, Peter Singer, Richard Y Chappell, and Angus Dawson, we could work while they were sleeping.

JES. What advice do you have for students engaged in designing and conducting research at this time?

Editors. Don’t see a pandemic as an opportunity to promote your own research career and try to coordinate your research with other efforts. As the paper from Francois Bompart shows, too many researchers are trying to recruit from the same population pools. Such a situation can mean that entire clinical studies have to be abandoned part way through because it is not possible to recruit to target. This means that those who had already contributed to such a study had done so in vain.

The same applies to social science research, especially amongst vulnerable populations in resource-poor settings. Where the impact of COVID-19 and related suffering is highest, people may need immediate help rather than research for future benefit. And definitely don’t do research abroad without local collaborators and ethics approvals in place. For a case study of how not to do social science research during a health emergency, see here: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-64731-9_14

JES. What advice do you have for dissertation or thesis supervisors who are working with student researchers?

Editors. Make sure you take account of the strain the students might be under. Stress, fear, and anxiety are all normal reactions during an emergency situation and the effects of confinement during lockdown are wide-ranging with potential physical and mental health, social, and economic impacts. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2008017

Additionally, find out whether students are looking after children or relatives. For instance, women researchers have suffered a reduction in output during the pandemic in Europe, whilst men were able to increase their output. (See this Guardian article about women’s research.)

Make sure students understand that they don’t need to work themselves into the ground for a dissertation. Universities should offer support and extensions.

JES. Anything else you would like to share?

Editors. We would like to thank again the authors who contributed to this special issue under difficult circumstances and working to a very tight deadlines. For instance, Godfrey Tangwa’s access to the Internet during the writing of his piece with Syntia Nchangwi Munung was very limited. SAGE staff were also fantastic, especially Deepak Kumar Pal who oversaw the production of each piece at double speed.  

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