Research Study Design and the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Are You Factoring For It?

In early March, I received word that a study I proposed and developed for Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), with two other volunteers and colleagues, had received IRB approval and was ready for us to go live and start seeking responses. It was exciting and the team I was working with was ready to hit send and get the survey out the door … until I threw a wrench into our plans by suggesting that the pandemic was cause for us to go back to the drawing board. What I pointed out to my colleagues was that the pandemic has caused known, significant shifts in the financial, occupational, and health situations of many people. Thus, in my view, any study gathering data from users during the pandemic would be likely to find their research discounted or penalized for a significant latent bias, if the impact of COVID-19 was not incorporated into the study design. My colleagues agreed with me, and in our case, we ended up incorporating a standard stress instrument and additional COVID-19 survey questions that we intend to use to analyze the responses from, and likely use as controls against the existing variables from, our original study design. Two months later, we have now gone back through IRB, and sent the survey out to our audience and eagerly await their responses.  You are welcome to take the survey yourself if you are interested in reviewing our question set. 

I believe the impact of the pandemic on their population of study is something that most research studies should consider, in performing research during these months following the pandemic. With the high levels of unemployment and illness, my colleagues and I have debated whether COVID-19 should be factored for studies over the next year, or beyond. 

In case the idea of revising your study or going back to IRB for a change request has you cringing and thinking about ignoring this suggestion and hoping for the best, let me ask you: are you hoping to publish your findings in a journal with an impact ranking and a low acceptance rate? Are you interested in, or currently pursuing scholarship beyond the minimum required to graduate with a Ph.D.? If so, I urge you to consider whether it would be appropriate to update your study design to factor for the impact of COVID-19. With publication in high-impact journals ever the gold star of research, I hypothesize that a little extra care up-front in designing the study and in data collection will pay for itself later in the higher quality of publishable research output. Additionally, several journals are now hosting special editions specifically focused on Covid-19 topics. My first rejection from an impact-rated journal on Ph.D. dissertation-quality research opened my eyes and helped me start my learning journey in identifying differences between research in general, and potentially high-impact research. 

While not exhaustive, some of the ways your participants (and thus, your research) might be impacted include:

  • Differences between participants who worked from home before COVID-19, compared to those who are struggling to adapt to this model, for the first time.
  • Differences between participants who can work, must work in the office, and/or are unemployed. The percentage of the population that is unemployed is so high now, that if you are excluding the unemployed from your study, you may have to try a lot harder to recruit. Alternatively, you could consider including those who were just recently unemployed, if there was a way that made sense in your study design.
  • Adapting in-person focus groups to online methods such as recorded Zoom calls or other online “live” group data gathering, and how your design and analysis would change with this adaptation.

Several emerging studies on the impact of COVID-19 may provide direction and/or ready-made instruments for measuring COVID-19 to assist researchers in adapting study designs to adjust the data collection and analysis to account for COVID-19’s impact on the participant pool.I and several other researchers affiliated with UOP are currently working on COVID-19 response research projects

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