Researchers should try to keep researching during the pandemic. Here’s 5 tips to help you do it

By Andrew Martin and Keiko Bostwick

Educational researchers, like many other workers during this COVID-19 pandemic, will be working from home for the foreseeable future. Most have additional teaching responsibilities so currently they will be pedaling fast to convert their teaching to online formats. Many will be juggling new or additional carer duties while working remotely. During this period, and afterwards, it is also likely external and internal research funding will be affected, with many researchers working in a low (or no) funding environment for some time.

We believe it is important, during this period, for researchers to continue with their research programs and to use the time to help develop or refine their research-relevant skillsets.

Experienced researchers, probably already involved in several research projects, will have the expertise to more easily adapt their research to the limitations of being confined to their homes or relatively less funding. And it is not uncommon in any research career to have periods of work away from the workplace or where research funds dry up. But this is a critical time for many researchers, especially research students and early career researchers. The strategies they use and develop now will help them keep their career trajectories intact.

In this article we outline 5 tips for researchers to help them stay research-active while working remotely and while research funding may be thin on the ground. We hope these tips will help researchers maintain their writing momentum and research activity over this period. Importantly, however, the ideas we present here do not substitute for the healthy and ongoing research funding that is ultimately required to tackle important research problems.

1. Research Design

The first thing to consider is research design and whether it needs to be adjusted because of the current social distancing regimes or reduced funding. In fact, this may be the single most important thing to think through in the first instance. Failure to do so may mean research objectives cannot be met and a critical window of data collection is missed. For some it could mean the loss of entire year in the study or research program.

If a shift in research design is needed, a key question is how can research objectives still be met while working remotely and while funding is limited? The research objectives will have been developed through careful reading, contemplation, and consultation so it is important to keep them front and centre as decisions on any changes to research design are made.

For example, some research objectives require longitudinal data from school students and/or teachers in each of (Australia’s) Term 2 (May-July), Term 3, and Term 4 of 2020. If schools are not holding in-person classes in some or all of Term 2, then is it still possible to collect longitudinal data in each of Terms 3 and 4? 

Or, the research context may be adjusted to collect data from students while they are learning remotely from home in Term 2 and then again once they are learning in-class at school. Either of the above considerations will likely also benefit research budgets, as they reduce or eliminate some costs associated with in-person data collection (e.g., travel costs).

Or, the researcher may be able to defer data collection that was planned for 2020 into early 2021 and still stay on track with milestones and timetable.

Shifts in research design of this nature are not unusual at the best of times. Often, approvals from university ethics committees or government departments are delayed, schools drop out from some projects, there is a shift in policy that makes some research issues less topical or timely, funding bodies reduce or remove funding schemes, and so on. Skills developed in adjusting methodology to suit the changing research landscape will be valuable throughout any research career.

Importantly, if research design needs to be adjusted, research students and early career researchers should consult with highly experienced researchers to ensure that the methodological shift will yield reliable and valid data that can directly address the research objectives.

2. Low Hanging Fruit

While working remotely it might be difficult to fire up entirely new research activities and projects. This often requires being on deck in the workplace to harness appropriate infrastructure and personnel to initiate new tasks. It may also be because data collection sites are not accessible during this time. When funding is reduced, it is also difficult to initiate new research projects. Whatever the reason, it is important to audit the “low hanging fruit” that may be available.

There could be essential deskwork tasks that can be done. For example, entering/refining references in an electronic bibliographic database that will eventually need to be imported into the thesis or paper. The format template for a thesis or forthcoming book can be developed ready for material as it is written. An ethics application may be developed and submitted. A survey may be designed. A stockpile of literature can be collected and read. A first draft of an article or thesis chapter can be polished into a second and subsequent draft. A partially completed article can be revisited, completed, and submitted for publication. A vital statistical or qualitative analytic technique may be learned.

For early career researchers, there may be a research article or chapter from the PhD that can be polished and submitted. There may be data from the PhD that have not been analysed and/or written up for publication. For research students whose data collection has been delayed, they may consider publishing a systematic review of the literature gathered for their project.

There are also many secondary datasets, archive materials, policy documents, and so on, that have already been collected/collated and ready for analysis. In our line of research, there is access to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey), TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), and LSAY (Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth), etc. which all have variables that are relevant to our program of educational psychology research. Indeed, this period of remote working and low funding might be an opportunity to become familiar with one of these for-future research opportunities.

It is also not uncommon for a paper in Revise and Resubmit status to languish on the backburner. Now might be the time to summon the emotional and mental energy to engage with those Reviewers! If the deadline for resubmission has passed, contact the Editor to ask about an extension.

3. New Opportunities in (Educational) Research

The shift from in-class learning to remote online learning happened at scale and with great speed. What would have taken years to implement was carried out in a few days and weeks. From a research perspective, it is one of the largest educational experiments ever conducted.

Online learning is a reality of the future of education (in both school and higher education) and there is now a chance to know more about it on a very large scale. What are the modes and formats that optimise online learning? What online learning platforms are best? What is the optimal mix of teacher-directed, peer-to-peer, and self-directed learning in an online lesson? What student and home factors enable or impede online learning? What are the barriers to accessing and maximising online learning that we need to address in educational policies?

There are educational questions unique to this period that represent opportunities to better understand how students learn best.

There are many types of data that can be collected during this time. Surveys can be administered online. Students, teachers, or parents/carers can be asked to keep a diary during this time. There may be data that schools collect during this period that can be analysed.

Some researchers will have in-class (pre-COVID-19) data that can be matched with data collected during the COVID-19 remote learning period. This can answer some questions around in-class vs. remote learning and instruction.

There are also new opportunities to contribute to professional and practitioner outlets. It has been encouraging to see the extent to which researchers have been part of conversations and decisions around how to manage all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teacher, counsellor, and psychologist magazines, blogs, and newsletters are receptive to evidence-based advice that researchers can provide to support children and young people’s academic and personal wellbeing outcomes.

4. Collaboration

At a time of isolation, remote work, and limited resources, collaboration has never been more important. The emotional support this provides is essential as a basic human need. But there are also some very good research reasons for collaboration.

During this period of remote learning, different researchers will have different capacities. Some researchers will have school-aged children who are learning at home. Some researchers may have other carer roles, such as attending to an elderly parent. These researchers will have a different research capacity during COVID-19 than researchers who do not have such immediate carer roles.

One response to this is to develop collaboration among researchers who have complementary but non-overlapping capacities during this time. For example, a researcher with carer duties may be able to shoulder the load of deskwork that can occur at flexible times during the day and week, in collaboration with a researcher who is in a position to work during business hours or do work that requires real-time responses though the day. Or, a researcher whose participating schools can no longer participate in their research may connect with a researcher who does have viable school contacts. The same concepts apply where a researcher who has limited research resources can connect with a researcher who may have relatively more resources. Thus, a researcher with an established research design, instrumentation, or specific analytical skills can connect with a researcher who has accessible schools (or research resources/funding)—yielding a win-win outcome.

Remember also that on the other side of this period, the researcher with carer duties will be able to recalibrate to contribute in different ways again. Thus, through the life-course of writing and revising an article or chapter, it is often “swings and roundabouts” with each researcher contributing according to capacity and in different ways at different times.

5. Self-regulation (“The Main Thing is To Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing”)

When working remotely there can be vast capacity to lose important routines and structures that typically support research progress. When researchers have limited research resources, they may become disheartened or not be aware of what possibilities exist while they wait for more research funding to become available. During remote working, getting side-tracked, distracted, and procrastinating are also real risks. Moreover, with so many colleagues online in real-time during this period of remote work, there has been an escalation in e-activity (emails, online meetings, etc.) which may impede research progress.

Self-regulation will be a vital personal attribute to help researchers stay on-track and on-time—and to get past periods of low (or no) funding.

Quarantining (no pun intended) significant blocks of writing time is critical to maintain writing momentum. This will probably necessitate turning off email, messaging, mobile phones, etc. Having firm start times, break times, and clock-off times will also be important (including to maintain clear boundaries between personal and working life). This will also involve arranging (as best possible) a specific work area where concentration is easier.

The following mission statement may also be helpful to keep researchers research focused during this time: “The Main Thing is To Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing”.

Having said all of this, another important aspect of self-regulation is to adjust as appropriate to maintain personal wellbeing. If it is not realistic to set the bar at 6 metres, then don’t. Set it at 5 metres and see how you go. Cut yourself some slack where you need to. This remote work period may be something of a marathon and we should self-regulate accordingly as we seek that all-important balance between research productivity and personal wellbeing.

In Sum

For the foreseeable future our research lives have changed. But there will come a time when we are on the other side of this and when research resources are more readily and widely available. When that time comes, it will be important for our research programs and our research-relevant skills to have been maintained. There are lots of ways that researchers can do this—hopefully the ideas suggested here are some useful kick-starters.

Professor Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.

Keiko Bostwick, PhD, is a Research Officer in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She specialises in student motivation, teacher and classroom effects, and quantitative research methods.

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