4 Rules of the Road for Conducting Ethical Research during COVID-19
by Swetha Totapally and Shreya Menon from Dalberg Advisors
In the early days of India’s lockdown, our team received an urgent WhatsApp message from our colleague, Tanvi: “I’m on the phone with an interviewee. The crisis has been devastating and he’s expressing suicidal thoughts. Can someone help?” It so happened that another one of our colleagues, Gaurav, had staffed suicide helplines in the past. He saw the message and immediately got on a separate line with Tanvi to help her navigate the conversation. After a two-hour conversation, the respondent said he was feeling calmer, and we ended the interview.
We left feeling lucky that we happened to have the relevant expertise to help our interviewee. But what if Tanvi hadn’t messaged us? What if we weren’t all checking our phones at that moment? What if no one amongst us had staffed suicide helplines before?
This was a sobering wake-up call. As a firm focused on supporting low-income and marginalized communities, we want to be sure that we respond ethically to what we engage with. When you set out to conduct one of India’s largest studies on government entitlements during a crisis of unprecedented scale, having robust protocols in place is an important start. But while protocols simplify steps and equip teams to act, extraordinary times require fresh thinking to ensure that deeply held principles are still translating through the entire process. What we have developed from our experience is a sharper set of guidelines for researchers that are more suited to COVID-times.
1. Check your license to drive a project.
Come to an early decision on whether you are the right organisation to research a topic that can trigger respondents. Issues like domestic violence are sensitive even in normal times but may pose a danger to respondents during times of Covid-19 given the fact that perpetrators may be home and listening to the interview over the phone. Other topics like mental health may not put the respondent in direct physical harm but could serve as painful emotional triggers (and could ultimately lead to physical harm, as well).
Evaluate your competence to address sensitive issues. An NGO working in the sector for decades with long-standing community relationships may be best placed to explore such a problem (and that too, using tools other than surveys). An organisation that conducts surveys through enumerators could explore solutions and access to support networks, and helplines, but may still not be the right organization to conduct the work.
Deciding what you are equipped to cover and how is challenging. Tools like this decision tree for researching VAWG during COVID-19 can help.
2. Factor in necessary detours.
For good reason, most interviewers do not follow up with respondents because it would circumvent their consent and take up even more of their time. We chose to follow up on our phone call because upholding consent was less important than ensuring sure the participant’s life was out of danger.
Similarly, it’s critical to allow interviewees a voice when they wish to speak. Indeed, respondents who bring up stress and anxiety of their own volition, often cannot articulate their struggles elsewhere. Interviews — especially qualitative interviews — often provide important moments of agency for respondents.
This is harder to do in quantitative surveys where we have stricter time limits and less control over the enumerator-respondent interaction. Even so, we find ways of centering our respondents. For example, we train enumerators to hear out answers even if they aren’t relevant to the question by noting them down in ‘Others, please specify’ categories.
3. Set up your own speed-bumps.
Many of us are working at breakneck speed right now. Speed-bumps designed to slow us down can help us improve the ethics and even the quality of our work. Consider conducting internal workshops to stress-test the survey purpose and proposed analyses, setting up peer review groups to review questionnaires, conducting ethnographic research and pre-tests with respondents, and getting IRB approval for sensitive studies (yes, even if it slows down your study). As an illustration, after our interview, we immediately reached out to Indus Action for advice and support in rolling out helplines during interviews
4. Complete the journey beyond the survey.
Response rates during this crisis have been unusually high. People are asking to be heard. In return for the trust our respondents place in us as researchers, we’re making an implicit bargain to use their data towards impactful ends. So think about ways and means to step outside the role of researcher and into the roles of storytellers and advocates. Getting the research and analysis right could thus represent just a fraction of your efforts. Bring diligence also to (a) identifying the key messages (b) communicating them sharply, and (c) sharing insights and recommendations with as many policymakers as possible (often working with other partner organizations to do so).
Research ethics is about more than following a set of protocols. It’s about ensuring that a firm’s culture and values are always present in one’s work and not subject to an invisible erosion. We hope these guidelines encourage you to revisit your processes as you navigate research efforts. An openness to questioning and sharpening your firm’s protocols will serve you through and beyond this crisis.