Navigating digital research methods: key principles to consider
I was approached by Epigeum to review their existing research methods courses and explore the possibility of helping to develop a new course that would provide an introduction to research methods. In particular, they were interested in updating existing courses and providing new material to cover digital research methods.
It was an intriguing prospect: I taught research methods courses at university for a number of years and wrote books on research methods and teaching research methods. My last book was specifically about digital research methods.
We liaised and the ideas developed. Yes, it was a great idea to develop a course that introduced research methods, and yes, it was extremely important to include digital research methods. Will I be able to write the course? Yes!
The new course developed gradually: it had to cover the principles of research methods. I had to go back to basics: what exactly should learners know when introduced to research methods? Do learners from all disciplines need to know the same things? What would go in the course: what would be left out? How would digital research methods be integrated? Ten principles emerged from these questions.
What are these principles?
- Study the nature of human knowledge and how it is acquired. Understand the nature and structure of the world and how it can be articulated. Relate these questions to the design and objectives of the research, the choice of methodology, the type of theory generation and the way in which knowledge is constructed.
- Develop a clear, concise, and well-worded question around which to focus research. Generate goals and objectives. Avoid personal biases, assumptions or prejudices when producing a research question and goals and objectives.
- Know and choose an appropriate research methodology (the guideline system or the research framework). Understand the difference between methodology and method. Justify and defend the chosen methodology.
- Know a variety of qualitative, quantitative and mixed research methods and numerical research methods. Understand how the choice of research method is framed and guided by the methodology.
- Understand sampling techniques and procedures, choose sample sizes and overcome sampling problems and dilemmas.
- Know and choose the methods of analyzing qualitative, quantitative or mixed data. Choose and use data analysis software and tools.
- Reflect on the different types of links that can be established between and between disciplines (interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, for example).
- Know how to identify and meet data protection and security challenges and produce a data management plan.
- Communicate research using a variety of methods, platforms and channels of communication, dissemination and publication. Identify and address potential challenges when communicating research.
- Produce and submit a successful research proposal.
It was summer 2019: we had no idea of the importance of digital research methods and online work, nor of the relevance and timeliness of the course content.
For example, I thought it would be very helpful for learners to follow three examples of researchers working on each principle. One of these researchers is researching tools that can be used to trace contact for a respiratory infection. These tools include a survey (questionnaires filled out by an individual, covering who they come into contact with) and wearables, in the form of a badge or bracelet (with built-in sensors that record levels and time of contact. ). At the time of developing this character, the new coronavirus in humans had not been identified.
The numerical search methods provided in this example, and other examples given in the course, illustrate that there are many possibilities for searching, despite the limitations of face-to-face contact. However, with these new possibilities come increased ethical implications.
- In social network analysis, what does a researcher do when the person identifying their social network has given consent, but others within the network have not given their consent?
- In research based on wearable devices, what happens if the wearer registers other people who are not in the study?
- How can researchers resolve informed consent issues when data is collected by methods that participants are not aware of (data tracking and mining, for example)?
Confidentiality and privacy
- When using cell phone interviews, how can researchers maintain confidentiality and privacy when participants choose to conduct their conversations in public places?
- How can researchers ensure confidentiality and privacy when participants may not have the same concerns (when they are used to sharing mobile data with friends, family, and organizations, for example)?
Anonymity and online identities
- How can researchers cite information found online (from blogs and social networks, for example) while respecting anonymity and identities online?
- How can individuals present themselves differently in public and private online spaces?
- Did the identity and online presence of the researcher influence the investigation?
The inevitable shift to online study and digital research in the face of limited contact and travel opens up enormous possibilities. Digital methods allow us to reach large audiences, across geographic boundaries and in hard-to-reach places. They can be cheaper, faster and more efficient than traditional face-to-face methods.
However, not all data is freely and also available in the digital environment. Individuals can produce public and / or private data, and commercial organizations can restrict access or provide only partial access to the data.
We all need to be familiar with the rules and regulations on what, when and how digital data can be used for research purposes. We also need to think about how partial, restricted, or limited accessibility might affect our design and research methods. And, most importantly, we must ensure that all ethical implications are identified and addressed, and that issues of integrity and scholarship are at the forefront of our digital research and studies.