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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 the existing courses and providing new material to cover digital research methods.

It was an intriguing prospect: I have taught research methods courses at university for a number of years and have written books on research methods and teaching research methods. My latest book was specifically on digital research methods.

We liaised and the ideas developed. Yes, it was a very good idea to develop a course that introduced research methods, and yes, it was extremely important to include digital research methods. Would I be able to write the course? Yes!

The new course developed gradually: it was to cover the principles of research methods. I had to go back to the basics: what, exactly, did learners need to know when they were 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 incorporated? Ten principles emerged from these questions.

What are these principles?

  1. Studying the nature of human knowledge and how it is acquired. Understanding the nature and structure of the world and how it can be articulated. Relating these issues to research design and goals, choice of methodology, type of theory generation and the way that knowledge is built.
  2. Developing a clear, concise and well-formulated question around which research is focused. Generating aims and objectives. Avoiding personal prejudice, assumptions or bias when producing a research question and aims and objectives.
  3. Knowing about and choosing a suitable research methodology (the guideline system or framework for research). Understanding the difference between methodology and method. Justifying and defending the chosen methodology.
  4. Knowing about a variety of qualitative, quantitative and mixed research methods and digital research methods. Understanding how choice of research method is framed and guided by methodology.
  5. Understanding sampling techniques and procedures, choosing sample sizes and overcoming sampling problems and dilemmas.
  6. Knowing about and choosing data analysis methods for qualitative, quantitative or mixed data. Choosing and using data analysis software and tools.
  7. Reflecting on the different types of connection that can be made between and across disciplines (interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research, for example).
  8. Knowing how to identify and address data protection and security challenges and produce a data management plan.
  9. Communicating research using a variety of communication, dissemination and publishing methods, platforms and channels. Identifying and addressing potential challenges when communicating research.
  10. Producing and submitting a successful research proposal.

That was summer 2019: we had no idea how important digital research methods and working online would be, nor how relevant and timely course content would become.

For example, I thought it would be very useful for learners to follow three examples of researchers working their way through each principle. One of these researchers is conducting research into tools that can be used to trace contact for respiratory disease infection. These tools include a survey (questionnaires completed by an individual, covering who they come into contact with) and wearables, in the form of a badge or wristband (with embedded sensors that record levels and time of contact). At the time of developing this character, the novel coronavirus in humans had not been identified.

The digital research methods provided in this example, and in other examples given in the course, illustrate that there are many possibilities available for research, despite limits on face-to-face contact. With these new possibilities, however, come increased ethical implications.

Informed consent

  • 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 consent?
  • In wearables-based research, what happens in cases where the wearer records others who are not part of the study?
  • How can researchers address issues of informed consent when data are collected through methods about which participants are unaware (location tracking and data mining, for example)?

Confidentiality and privacy

  • When using mobile 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 organisations, for example)?
  • Do software companies have a clear and robust privacy policy regarding the collection, use and disclosure of personally identifiable information?

Anonymity and online identities

  • How can researchers cite information found online (from blogs and social networks, for example) yet respect anonymity and online identities?
  • How might individuals present themselves differently in public and private online spaces?
  • Have does the online identity and presence of the researcher influence the investigation?

The inevitable move to online study and digital research in the face of limited contact and movement opens up huge possibilities. Digital methods enable us to reach a wide audience, across geographical boundaries and in places that may be hard to access. They can be cheaper, quicker and more efficient than traditional face-to-face methods.

However, not all data are freely and equally available in the digital environment. Individuals might produce public and/or private data, and commercial organisations might restrict access or provide only partial access to data.

We must all become familiar with rules and regulations about 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 research design and 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 study.

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