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Starting or resuming face-to-face data collection for postgraduate research

This guidance is for students and for their supervisors.

While COVID-19 is still restricting interaction, it is expected that remote data collection will be the norm. Approval for face-to-face (f2f) data collection for postgraduate research (PGR) students will only be granted in exceptional cases and it will involve a number of hurdles.

For the overwhelming majority of researchers, remote data collection will be all that is allowed. An example of a case where f2f data collection will be considered is where the researcher already works alongside participants in a school that has a well-developed COVID-19 safety policy that can be followed. Our approach prioritises the safety and wellbeing of participants and research staff and students.

Needing to start, or restart face-to-face data collection

A PGR student needing to start, or restart, f2f data collection should first discuss with their supervisor(s) their need to do so and their plans to ensure that the data collection meets the requirements outlined in the appendix at the end of this guidance. 

If the supervisor agrees that f2f data collection meets these requirements, then the PGR student will need to make a case in writing to the Departmental Graduate Tutor (DGT) explaining in the body of the email why online methods cannot be used or are not appropriate. They should copy their supervisor into this email.

If the DGT agrees that there might be a case, then the PGR student should read the IOE research ethics starting fieldwork proforma that the UCL Institute of Education Research Ethics Committee (IOE REC) has designed:

This will help them see the fieldwork-specific ethical issues they will be asked to address, and the reviewers will be assessing.

The form is for staff, but similar principles apply for PGR students. Note that the form asks for a justification for the use of f2f fieldwork, asking the researcher to detail how they have ‘verified that data could not be collected remotely’ and asking that they address ‘the ethical obligation to not place extra burden on participants, such that risks outweigh benefits for any participant’.

Starting face-to-face data collection

If intending to start f2f data collection, a PGR student should:

  1. Email your ethics application form and attachments including the , information sheets and consent forms to your supervisory team. 
  2. Attach all guidance concerning safety related to the context/s of your setting, (e.g. a school’s policy on COVID-19).
  3. Once approved by your supervisor and another member of staff, submit all documents to the DGT.
  4. Note that if you are proposing to collect personal data (i.e. data from which a living individual can be identified), you must be registered with the UCL Data Protection Office before you submit your ethics application for review.

To do this, email the complete ethics form and information sheets, consent forms and other materials to be used to inform potential participants of the research to data-protection@ucl.ac.uk

Once your registration number is received, add it to the form and submit it to your supervisor for approval. If the Data Protection Office advises you to make changes to the way in which you propose to collect and store the data, this should be reflected in your ethics application form.

Resuming face-to-face data collection

If intending to resume f2f data collection, a PGR should:

  1. Revise your original ethics application form and attachments including information sheets and consent forms, highlighting in yellow the updating of your application/attachments to reflect new arrangements that address the contexts of COVID-19. 
  2. Email a rationale for the revisions, the above documents, the , and all guidance concerning safety related to the context/s of your setting (e.g. a school’s policy on COVID-19) to your supervisor.
  3. Please provide in your email a clear list of the updated elements in your original ethics form and attachments. 
  4. Once the above is approved by your supervisor, submit all documents including the rationale to the DGT.

Review process

Once completed, the DGT checks the following have been included and then forwards the documentation to Richard Freeman (Interim Head of CDE): 

  • the email setting out the reasons why f2f data collection is required, 
  • the ethics application form (updated if appropriate)
  • the IOE COVID-19 risk assessment form
  • the guidance for the fieldwork setting (e.g. a school’s policy on COVID-19)
  • supporting documents such as information sheets and consent forms (updated if appropriate with regard to COVID-19).

Richard Freeman and Phil Jones (IOE REC Chair) will review the proposed f2f data collection to consider whether the student makes the case for online methods/remote working not being appropriate and that f2f data collection is justified, and meets the requirements in the appendix.

If they conclude that f2f data collection is justified, then the materials will be forwarded to the IOE REC for review (please see Section 2.2 onwards in the IOE Starting or Resuming Face-to-Face Fieldwork guidance for this process) and will follow the same process as staff applications.

Please note that although f2f data collection may be approved, it should be kept under constant review in case the situation regarding COVID-19 changes. Any changes or pauses to the research project or design should be negotiated with, and approved by, the principal supervisor, with the IOE REC being informed. If there are concerns, then further review by the IOE REC will be undertaken.

Please note that no f2f data collection can go ahead until full approval has been granted.

Once reviewed, the IOE REC will communicate with the student and supervisor.

Appendix

The following are IOE requirements for PGR students starting or restarting fieldwork:

  • Research fieldwork should, where possible, be conducted by remote means.
  • If you cannot guarantee the safety of participants and researchers, in relation to COVID-19, then data collection must continue to be paused, or appropriate online data collection methods must be designed.
  • If you are making a decision about whether to restart or to start research involving face to face interactions, you must also be sure that any potential future pause in the study caused by a fresh lockdown will not be detrimental to the interests, mental health or wellbeing of participants. For example, if relationships are restarted, or begun, which will later be paused then it is important for researchers to be sure that participants will not be adversely affected by this breaking of relationship or engagement. It is essential to take seriously your ethical obligation not to place extra burden on your participants such that risks outweigh benefits for the participant
  • Our approach prioritises the safety and well-being of participants and research staff. We recognise the complexities connected to this in relation to understandings of research as a benefit, and participation in it, as a desirable activity, including: the chance research provides for participants voices to be heard; and, the importance of researching specific issues relating to, and implications of, the pandemic. We recognise, then, that there is also an ethical issue in not researching people's experiences and perspectives, thereby excluding them from knowledge production. This is relevant in relation to people, for example, who won't have ready access to online technologies, or may not feel comfortable using them because of status concerns (e.g. undocumented migrants).