By Daniela Mradones-Bravo
“Embarking on digital research will, potentially, place a researcher on less stable ground owing to the perceived newness of the terrain. This may cause doubt in the mind of the researcher. Doubts may also be manifested as scepticism or uncertainty on the part of a doctoral supervisory team or a university ethics review board. Research in previously uncharted territory is exciting, and learning to defend the choices made will help in the robustness of the research undertaken, but it can also be time consuming”Quinton and Reynolds (2019, p.8)
This quote reflects what many qualitative researchers are facing in light of the Covid-19 Pandemic: the unprecedented challenge of not being able to do their fieldwork to gather data and the need to move the research online. Without knowing when they are going to be allowed to travel again, many have been forced to change their methodologies from classic paradigms of ethnography or interviews to online and digital methods. What happens next?
This post addresses the journey of moving research online and the hard decisions that researchers must make to adapt their research. More positively, it also highlights the benefits and unexpected advantages of doing in-depth interviews online instead of in person.
First, it should be noted that there is a distinction between people doing research online about the internet (phenomenon) and those using the internet as a tool to study topics not directly related to the online environment. In this post, I will be discussing the latter: digital research as a method/instrument to research a topic that is outside the digital realm, rather than a topic of research itself (Quinton and Reynolds 2019, p.11). It will discuss how established questions can be solved with emerging methods: “While the question asked and/or the phenomenon investigated may not be digitally focused, the methods used to access research data, and/or the data accessed, are digital.” (Quinton and Reynolds 2019, 14).
1. Online interviewing for academic research
At first, interviews may appear to be directly transferable from existing tools and techniques to the digital method. In reality, however, there is an opportunity for new toolkits
Literature related to this topic is still limited in comparison with other methods. There is, however, enough information to understand the benefits and limitations of using online interviews as the default method for qualitative research.
Online synchronous interviewing is very popular in some fields. Most of the information is about how to do research online about online topics (for instance, social net, forums), about marketing and business research (for example, online focus groups) and to recruit new staff (human resources) but not necessarily academic research. However, social anthropologists and sociologists developed the concept of netnography (internet ethnography) to study online environments and communities (Costello, Mcdermott, and Wallace 2017).
Also, some fields have developed online research methods for empirical research such as health care studies, but there has not been much reference to this topic within the criminological field because most of the research has focused in digital has a phenomenon (online child pornography, online fraud, online environments).
Despite the lack of attention from some fields, interviews intermediated by technologies have been an important method of study for a long time. It is possible to find papers about telephone interviews from the 80s and internet interviews in the 2000s.
Currently, research focuses on two types of internet-based interviews: asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous interviews are non-real-time interviews and they were largely developed during the 2000s. Most are interviews over email, but it can also include online forums and chats. In other words, it is a written form of communication, but one which is faster than classic mails exchange.
Synchronous interviews are in real-time and they have evolved recently with the new technology. Although video conference and video calls seem very normal now, researchers have only started using it consistently to interview within the past ten years. So, the initial research talking about synchronous interviews refer to written communication through chatrooms or conferencing sites (see Chart 1) and not to video conference or calls.
There are many reasons to choose one platform or another, including availability, accessibility and data security. However, regardless of the platform the researcher chooses to use, it is important to test the technology with practice sessions because unanticipated issues may arise that disrupt the research. Such issues may not be evident from the description of the platform.
An example of this is described in Tuttas (2015): they discovered, while testing the system, that the programme sent an automatic email to participants after the meeting telling them that they could access the recordings; which violated privacy rules. Also, a couple of participants who used a telephone or tablet instead of a computer were unable to use the video connection (probably because of software compatibility), so they only participated through audio.
In the next sections, I will discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of using this method for qualitative research.
2. Advantages of using synchronous online interviews
Even if the researcher is planning to conduct face to face interviews, at least part of the recruitment process will likely be through internet communication because “In many ways the Internet simplifies matters, as it provides access to groups of users with tightly defined and narrow interests” (O’connor et al. 2008, p.276). So, researchers can find groups of people that meet the criteria for their research that may not be accessible in person.
The limitation is that emails and online posts can be easily ignored. Normally, in-person recruitment creates a commitment between the researcher and the subject, you cannot just “delete” someone that is sitting in your waiting room or asked for an appointment in your office but online recruitment does not create the same interaction.
Nevertheless, online recruitment can reach a bigger number of potential participants than if you just rely on face-to-face recruitment. Ideally, doing both seems to be the best option. For instance, using social media or social networking sites like Facebook has proven to be useful (Fileborn 2016). However, due to the current world scenario and the geographical distance, for most research, online recruitment is the only option although it could be combined with telephone recruitment.
It is also important to manage the participant`s expectations to have successful recruitment. The new technologies allow researchers to have innovative online spaces where participants can learn about the study through video introductions, webpages, blogs or podcast (Salmons 2020). These resources can broaden the scope of recruitment and at the same time ensure that the research is seen as reliable by the participants.
(ii) Easier to keep anonymity.
In an in-person interview, other people may know that the interviewee met the interviewer. Normally the interview will take place in a private room but from a public building (such as an office or research centre). Despite the best efforts of the researchers, some participants could be reluctant to participate because they think that they could eventually be identified.
However, online interviews give the chance of easily keeping anonymity, the participant can choose where and when to do the interview and without fearing they will be seen with the researcher. Unfortunately, there are some vulnerable members of the population with limited access to the internet that may not have this choice of privacy (for instance, prisoners, or victims of domestic violence) and the researcher must acknowledge these challenges to work with a vulnerable population online (Salmons 2020) and should create a new tailored data collection plan to protect their privacy (Ravitch, 2020).
(iii) Time and cost-effectiveness
Most of the researchers that had previously used these methods agreed that one of the main benefits is that it is cheaper and faster than in-person meetings. Firstly, there is no need to travel which immediately reduces transport costs to zero (in my case I was considering to spend at least £800 only on plane tickets). Furthermore, without any time spent travelling, the time invested in the interview is exactly the amount of time that the interview lasts which is very convenient for the researcher and for interviewees that have busy schedules.
Secondly, it is irrelevant if the participants are geographically widespread. This allows people from all over the world to be interviewed without financial or time constraints. The only limitation is different time zones. It is very important to check with all the participants in which time zone they are located and also to specify the time zone in which you are setting the meeting if you are sharing the event. Fortunately, there are many free time zone converters online and some software and email servers recognise the time zone automatically when an event invitation is received. However, it is always necessary to double check with the participants to avoid misunderstandings.
With this technology, it is possible to easily record the video interview. This allows interviewers to see the body language including some visual and spatial elements which were not possible with previous synchronous technology (telephone, chat) or with asynchronous (email).
In a recent study (Archibald et al., 2019) participants stated that using a synchronous platform (Zoom) for interviewing was better than other digital systems like email or telephone, although most of them still preferred to meet in person if possible.
Video also allows the collection of data related to nonverbal communication during the interview including kinesics (Salmons, 2018).
Furthermore, nowadays it is easy to transcribe and code videos in the same way that researcher previously used to code audio recordings, using any qualitative data analysis software (QDAS). The benefits of coding video with QDAS is that they allow the researcher to work simultaneously with the image, audio and transcription so it is easier to connect what has been said with the body expressions.
Nevertheless, it is important to consider that participants can choose between joining an online interview only with audio and it is impossible (and not recommendable) to force them to turn on their webcam if they do not want to. Also, some interviewees may find it intimidating to be video recorded. All the online platforms give the option of having only an audio call instead of a video call. In this case, researchers should let the participant know in advance that the interview will be video recorded and, if the participant does not agree, they should be familiarised and prepared to face a similar challenge to a telephone interview and understand the benefits and disadvantages of this method (Hay-Gibson 2010).
This used to be a disadvantage and still is for some of the population. However, every year more people have access to the internet. Currently, 59% of the world’s population has access to the internet, and it is constantly increasing.
Of course, access is not evenly spread around the world. In 2017, 94% of households in the United Kingdom had access to the internet whilst it was 87.5% in Chile, 78% in the USA, and 50.9% in Mexico (OECD Data, 2020). However, there have been some indications that the internet access will now sharply increase as a consequence of the pandemic because mediated communication systems have become the only secure way to communicate with people that are more vulnerable to the virus.
Unfortunately, the same people that are more vulnerable to the virus are the ones with less access to the internet (for example, the elderly, ethnic minorities, immigrants, prisoners). So, there is a chance that governments will put more effort into giving access to the internet to these populations. Currently, many countries are encouraging and funding policies that allow prisoners to have cell phones or direct access to the internet and video conferencing with some restrictions so they can contact their families and lawyers. For instance, in the United Kingdom there is an app for having secure video calls that was especially designed for the criminal justice system (check “Purple Visits”).
3. Disadvantages of using synchronous online interviews
There are still some concerns about the validity and quality of the data obtained through online interviews mainly because “the face-to-face interview has become somewhat of a ‘gold standard’ in terms of validity and rigour (…) and online interviews are presented as a second choice or alternative when this ‘gold standard’ of interviewing is not possible” (Deakin and Wakefield 2014, p.604).
However, this standard is changing. Now, more online tools are available, and more researchers are learning how to use them safely and ethically. Also, with the constant improvement in technology, there are no real limitations to data obtained through video call interviews in comparison with in-person interviews. But there are some limitations in other forms of online qualitative research like email-based research (James and Busher, 2006). Nevertheless, there is an increasing number of studies that validate online research methods so these are probably going to become concerns of the past.
(ii) Ethical concerns
The main ethical issues are data security, informed consent online and online identity which may differ from the corporeal identity (Deakin and Wakefield 2014). Also, giving written consent is more difficult. Some researchers used a mixed approach by obtaining consent through an online survey (Survey Monkey) and then oral consent at the beginning of the interview (Archibald et al., 2019).
These ethical issues have been a concern for researchers since the beginning of online research. Accordingly, the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) has extensively updated guidelines related to different stages of online research and different types of digital data (franzke et al., 2019). This document should be consulted by any researcher before starting their research.
(iii) Place/environment and privacy
The interviewer only has control over his or her environment and cannot influence the interviewee’s location. The interviewee could be in a place where they are easily distracted or surrounded by other people which compromises the autonomy of their responses. It could disrupt the interviews if they are in a place where other people can hear them. Also, the participant could be in a noisy place which interferes with communication.
This is a problem in every household but it is more serious some contexts like prisons or care facilities. The researcher must acknowledge that every participant will have different privacy/ environment settings and they must discuss this with the interviewee in advance to prevent, as far as possible, any type of interference or intrusion and, if necessary, adapt the methods and tools used.
Some researchers (Deakin and Wakefield, 2014) that used face-to-face and online interviews suggest that the absence rate is bigger in an online interview. One of them had 5% of absentees and the other had 20% (compared to no absentees in face-to-face interviews). However, they were able to reschedule all but one interview. The authors conclude that the avoidance of a meeting in your university or workspace is hard but skipping an online meeting where “there is no risk of being seen and definitely little loss on the interviewees part” (Deakin and Wakefield 2014, 612) seems to be a normal reaction.
This may be because the interviewees feel less committed to attending an online interview, and also because they know they are easier to reschedule compared to an in-person meeting. The absences recorded by Deakin and Wakefield also appeared to be related to a lack of familiarity with the researcher: most of the absentees were previously unknown to the researchers. To avoid this, the researchers suggest that it is necessary to increase previous communication with these interviewees to increase familiarity and create rapport (for example, emailing them more often and for a longer period of time).
Tuttas (2015) faced a similar problem while recruiting participants for online focus groups. They concluded that they needed to invite a much more interviewees than they required, anticipating an attrition of up to 50%, because “the virtual methodology might have distanced them from a compelling sense of commitment to attend their scheduled meeting” (Tuttas 2015, p.129).
(v) Technical difficulties.
To use this method interviewer and interviewee must have technical equipment, access to the internet, and know computer at least at the user level. Also, the interview relies on the connection and call quality. In a recent study, Archibald et al (2019) found that 88% of participants experienced some problem joining the session, 25% reported issues about the video or audio quality and some of them had setup issues like “poor webcam functionality, software incompatibility, low device battery, or issues with audio (e.g., sound could not be heard without the use of headphones)” (Archibald et al. 2019, p.5).
However, in this study, participants did not report problems that were common in previous research (poor video or audio quality, loss of internet connection) which is probably due to the improvement in technology. Other authors (Hanna, 2012) also mention some problems with the use of technology (proficiency) and technical hitches like faulty webcams or slow and unstable internet connections.
All these factors should be considered while planning the online interview but also when choosing the participants. It is clear from theses disadvantages that interviewing certain demographic groups (e.g. the elderly) or sectors of the population (e.g. rural populations) poses challenges especially if they do not have or have limited internet access.
Finally, the table included below, taken from Deakin and Wakefield (2014), summarises the benefits and drawbacks of conducting Skype interviews. It provides an overview of some of the points raised above:
Daniela Mardones-Bravo is a Chilean lawyer and criminologist. She holds an MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Edinburgh, and is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh currently researching the elderly prison population in Chile. Twitter: @danielamarbrav
Archibald, Mandy M, Rachel C Ambagtsheer, Mavourneen G Casey, and Michael Lawless. 2019. “Using Zoom Videoconferencing for Qualitative Data Collection: Perceptions and Experiences of Researchers and Participants.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods 18: 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406919874596.
Deakin, Hannah, and Kelly Wakefield. 2014. “Skype Interviewing: Reflections of Two PhD Researchers.” Qualitative Research 14 (5): 603–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794113488126.
Fileborn, Bianca. 2016. “Participant Recruitment in an Online Era: A Reflection on Ethics and Identity.” Research Ethics 12 (2): 97–115. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016115604150.
franzke, aline shakti, Anja Bechmann, Michael Zimmer, Charles and the Ess, and Association of Internet Researchers. 2019. “Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0 .” https://aoir.org/reports/ethics.pdf;
Hanna, Paul. 2012. “Using Internet Technologies (Such as Skype) as a Research Medium: A Research Note.” Q R Qualitative Research 12 (2): 239–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794111426607.
Hay-Gibson, Naomi Victoria. 2010. “Interviews via VoIP: Benefits and Disadvantages within a PhD Study of SMEs.” Library and Information Research 33 (105): 39–50. https://doi.org/10.29173/lirg111.
James, Nalita, and Hugh Busher. 2006. “Credibility, Authenticity and Voice: Dilemmas in Online Interviewing.” Qualitative Research 6 (3): 403–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794106065010.
O’connor, Henrietta, Clare Madge, Robert Shaw, and Jane Wellens. 2008. “Internet-Based Interviewing.” In The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods, edited by Nigel Fielding, Raymond M Lee, and Grant Blank, 2nd ed. Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9780857020055.
OECD Data. 2020. “Internet Access (Indicator).” 2020. https://data.oecd.org/ict/internet-access.htm.
Quinton, Sarah, and Nina Reynolds. 2019. “Digital Research as a Phenomenon and a Method In: Understanding Research in the Digital Age Introduction and Scope.” https://doi.org/10.4135/9781529716573.
Ravitch, sharon. 2020. “THE BEST LAID PLANS… Qualitative Research Design During COVID-19 – MethodSpace.” 2020. https://www.methodspace.com/the-best-laid-plans-qualitative-research-design-during-covid-19/.
Salmons, Janet. 2018. “Choosing Methodologies and Methods for Online Studies.” In Doing Qualitative Research Online. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781473921955.
Salmons, Janet. 2020. “Online Research with Vulnerable Populations – MethodSpace.” 2020. https://www.methodspace.com/online-research-with-vulnerable-populations/.
Tuttas, Carol A. 2015. “Lessons Learned Using Web Conference Technology for Online Focus Group Interviews.” Qualitative Health Research 25 (1): 122–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732314549602.