Legal restrictions in England began to be lifted in Summer 2021. Despite this, researchers should take a cautious approach and acknowledge that new regulations may be imposed with little notice.
If in-person fieldwork is justifiable, UCL’s people-first approach to keeping safe on campus can be used a guide for planning fieldwork on other sites.
Outside the UK, restrictions vary by country and can change with minimal warning. You must check and follow advice concerning travel and issues such as quarantine or self-isolation.
When seeking permission to engage in fieldwork your request should state which of the following three categories (A to C) your fieldwork falls into. You can determine your category by undertaking a risk assessment. When seeking permission to commence fieldwork you will need to provide evidence on how your fieldwork fits into that category, including the outcomes of the risk assessment. The categories are:
A. Where the context has changed, and face-to-face fieldwork can be safely undertaken.
B. Where easing of restrictions may allow for greater activities, but researchers should take a cautious approach and acknowledge that the dates for each step may change.
C. Where COVID-19 restrictions are prevalent and online methods should be undertaken.
You should read every section of this framework before proceeding further. You should comply with this framework before seeking any new or revised ethical approval. You should remain aware of any regulations related to COVID-19 which affects the location of fieldwork.
Version 1.8: 5 October 2021 (revised introduction and updated links to UCL policies; minor amendments to text to ensure consistency of terminology).
This framework is for:
- UCL researchers (any member of staff (including doctoral supervisors) or doctoral student involved in research);
- Deans (or their delegated authority) who make decisions about resuming fieldwork. A delegated authority could be a committee, Head of Department / Division Director, or a Vice-Dean (Research).
PGT and MRes students are outside the scope of this framework. They should follow the relevant guidance on dissertations, projects and placements.
The key aims of the framework are to guide:
- Resuming fieldwork that was underway prior to mid-March 2020;
- Starting new fieldwork;
- The decision-making process to only authorise fieldwork that can be undertaken safely.
The framework is owned and maintained by the Fieldwork Framework Group which reports to the Health and Safety Committee and Research Ethics Committee. The Group is in operation until 31 December 2021. The framework complements and supports the ‘Guidance for UCL Researchers regarding on-going research and ethical approval in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’.
- 1. Strategic objectives
- To restore UCL fieldwork where it is safe to do so.
- To provide a structure for decision-making to restart UCL fieldwork while maintaining faculty decision-making and flexibility.
- To work in close collaboration with key stakeholders (including funders, partners and participants) to ensure their needs and concerns are recognised and addressed appropriately.
- 2. Guiding principles
- The framework is intended to support resuming or starting fieldwork during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the fluid situation (where fresh lockdowns or restrictions may be imposed at national or regional levels), this guidance will need to be reviewed and refreshed.
- The framework is intended to create a structure to inform faculty decision-making in pursuance of proportionate and pragmatic arrangements.
- The decision on whether researchers or doctoral students can resume or start fieldwork rests with the Dean (or a delegated authority).
- The pace of a restart will be influenced by preconditions that must be met prior to resuming research (see next section).
- There is likely to be variable and rapidly changing levels of research capacity in different geographical regions, sites and organisations.
- Those wishing to undertake field-based research should ensure that a sense of trust and partnership informs how fieldwork is planned and managed. The needs of staff, students, partners and participants must be recognised and addressed in any fieldwork carried out during the pandemic. There should be opportunities for them to feed into fieldwork arrangements.
- Any fieldwork must be compliant with the UCL Code of Conduct for Research. Any research that requires ethical approval must go through the existing process. Nothing in this framework replaces or supersedes any existing UCL policy. If there is any contradiction between the framework and a UCL policy, the policy has primacy.
- 3. Preconditions for starting or resuming fieldwork
ViabilityPrinciple: only fieldwork that is viable should start or resume.
Fieldwork plans should undergo a risk assessment before starting or resuming. It is understood that the interpretation of these areas will vary according to discipline and context. The researcher is expected to work with any partners to conduct a preliminary assessment. Where the assessment identifies viability issues that require resolution these should be resolved before any request is made to resume or start fieldwork.
Changes to fieldwork plans and protocols may require approval from the funder in advance. If so, the researcher should work with Research Services to ensure that necessary approvals are in place.
SafetyPrinciple: fieldwork should only start or resume when safe to do so.
The safety of the researcher (staff, doctoral students) and any participants is of paramount importance. Before starting or restarting fieldwork the researcher must ensure the following areas are addressed and communicated effectively.
- Government guidance on social distancing, restart of work, and travel (in the UK and where the fieldwork takes place, if abroad);
Compliance and responsibilities
- Up-to-date research ethics approval (if required)
- Risk of exposure to COVID-19 (and measures to mitigate this) as identified in the UCL risk assessment templates;
- Clearly identified responsibilities for site safety control including the monitoring of identified controls in the risk assessment
- Local site protocols (including clearly identified responsibilities for safety control and the monitoring of identified controls) in respect of COVID-19 (if these are unavailable from a local partner, the researcher will need to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place and included in the risk assessment);
- Site compliance with protocol and regulatory requirements;
- Adequate protection of people who would be defined by the NHS as high risk (clinically extremely vulnerable) and moderate risk (clinically vulnerable);
- Assessment of individual risks and the need for additional controls for those in the higher risk group;
- Assessment of the needs for PPE by staff, doctoral students, research partners and participants;
- Assessment of the physical and mental wellbeing of staff, doctoral students, research partners and participants;
- Site compliance with protocol and regulatory requirements;
- Assessment of participants’ concerns about COVID-19 (they need to feel safe and reassured about the fieldwork);
- Provision of clear guidance on safety issues and measures for staff, doctoral students and participants from the host or partner organisation;
- Assessment of requirements, processes and safety for travelling to and attending fieldwork visits and meetings (the number of people involved should be as minimal as possible and issues connected to lone working should be addressed);
- Processes for dealing with emergencies (and the potential for a reduced level of emergency response);
- Processes for dealing with persons reporting they are feeling unwell;
- Processes for keeping in contact with teams and constantly review of risks assessments and any work being conducted.
- Assessment that any mitigations put in place to restart or resume fieldwork do not have an adverse impact on participant safety.
Capacity and site readinessPrinciple: The pace of starting or resuming fieldwork should be commensurate with capacity and readiness of field sites.
Effective fieldwork will be dependent on partners and non-UCL settings being ‘open for business’. Capacity is likely to be variably reduced by several factors (such as: the type of location, availability of staff, additional measures required to ensure personal safety, and variation in local and national restrictions). Preconditions include:
- Availability and capacity of staff, doctoral students and partners;
- Capacity of partners to undertake fieldwork;
- Physical access arrangements for participants, in light of social distancing, reduced public transport, and reduction in support from third sector organisations or third parties;
- Confirmation from the funder to amend from that originally planned (if required).
- 4. Equality, diversity and inclusion
- UCL defines ‘equality’ as the absence of unjust social hierarchy such as those based on age, disability, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and religion, and ‘diversity’ as the presence of different cultural traditions and identities. UCL participates in a number of equality charter marks and is a signatory to the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. Diversity enriches research and is critical to addressing the significant challenges facing the world today and those that will arise in the future.
- Researchers should recognise that restrictions can change on how they and staff engage with participants and each other. For instance, face coverings will increase communication difficulty for many people, especially deaf and hard of hearing children and adults.
- Researchers should be aware that others involved in a project (including other staff, doctoral students and participants) may not be able to contribute immediately or at the same level due to ill health, caring responsibilities, self-isolation, or difficulties involved in travelling to non-UCL settings. Participants must be reminded that involvement in a research project is voluntary and they can withdraw at any time.
- There is increasing evidence that BAME communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and may be clinically vulnerable. Older people are significantly more vulnerable than younger people. Asymptomatic carriers of the virus are an acknowledged phenomenon.
- 5. Research hosted by another academic institution, organisation or business
- UCL researchers should follow the access protocols set by the host organisation. If the researcher has concerns over the protocols of the host organisation, these should be resolved before any fieldwork resumes or starts.
- If protocols are not provided by the host organisation, this should be regarded as a higher level of risk. UCL researchers will need to develop their own protocols similar to or in dialogue with those adopted by UCL (as part of the risk assessment), taking into account government regulations such as those on cleaning, social distancing, self-isolation, use of public transport, and use of facemasks and hand sanitisers.
- 6. Regulations by the UK government, devolved governments and foreign governments
Researchers should be aware that there are different regulations and approaches to re-opening in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They should follow the local guidelines where the research is being conducted. Regulations and guidance are changing on a regular basis and researchers need to ensure that they meet those in force when fieldwork is conducted.
- England: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus
- Scotland: https://www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/
- Wales: https://gov.wales/coronavirus
- Northern Ireland: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/campaigns/coronavirus-covid-19
UCL researchers must follow the advice on travel on UCL business and the Overseas Research Roadmap as well as FCO guidance. Researchers based abroad and working on behalf of UCL must follow local laws and guidelines.
- 7. Responsibilities and obtaining approval
A risk assessment must be undertaken and approved before any fieldwork takes place in a non-UCL setting. This is to ensure the safety of researchers and participants.
The risk assessment is the responsibility of the researcher or, in the case of PhD students, the doctoral supervisor. They are also responsible for ensuring that no fieldwork takes place until the risk assessment has been approved. They should consult with the checklist in Appendix B and use the relevant COVID-19 risk assessment template on UCL’s riskNET system (guidance and link to riskNET) to seek approval. If fieldwork plans change significantly after approval, the risk assessment will need to be re-approved.
A Dean is responsible for approving the risk assessment of any fieldwork at a non-UCL setting led by a researcher or doctoral student in their faculty. The Dean may appoint one or more delegated authorities within the faculty to handle any requests for approval. A delegated authority could be a committee or Head of Department / Division Director. Existing local arrangements for approving risk assessments (especially for those requiring specialist knowledge of lower- and middle-income countries) should continue as before with final approval by the Dean (or the delegated authority).
Anyone working in the field on the project (including any UCL staff member or doctoral student) needs to acquaint themselves with the approved risk assessment. They must report any change in circumstances to the researcher or doctoral supervisor as appropriate.
The decision tree in Appendix C illustrates the approval process.
- 8. Discipline-specific approaches
Discipline-specific approaches to starting or resuming fieldwork are possible but must meet the following conditions:
- They must complement and be aligned with this framework;
- They must be submitted in draft form to the Fieldwork Framework Group for review and feedback (drafts can be sent to email@example.com);
- They must be approved by the Dean (or the delegated authority).
- 9. Concerns and research integrity
- Any concerns regarding the start or resumption of fieldwork can be raised with the relevant Dean or with the Research Integrity team (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Any allegations of research misconduct must follow existing procedures and policies.
- 10. UCL policies and guidance to consult
- Working Safely During a Pandemic: www.ucl.ac.uk/safety-services/working-safely-during-pandemic
- Keeping Safe on Campus: www.ucl.ac.uk/coronavirus/keeping-safe-campus
- COVID-19 Travel Policy: www.ucl.ac.uk/procurement/travel/covid-19-travel
- COVID-19 Risk Assessment: www.ucl.ac.uk/safety-services/node/2606/
- Overseas Roadmap: www.ucl.ac.uk/research/integrity/ethics/research-outside-uk
- Research integrity: www.ucl.ac.uk/research/integrity/policies-and-guidelines
- UCL Coronavirus Hub: www.ucl.ac.uk/coronavirus/
- Appendix A: glossary
Black, Asian, and minority ethnic
The collection of raw data outside a laboratory, library, or workplace setting
Health and Safety Committee
Any site or building that is not controlled by UCL
A student studying for a research degree
Postgraduate taught student
A human participant in a research project or initiative
Principal Investigator. The researcher responsible for leading a research initiative or project (sponsored or non-sponsored)
Personal protective equipment
Research Ethics Committee
Any member of UCL staff or a UCL doctoral student involved in research.
- Appendix B: fieldwork start or resumption checklist
- The option of using a remote platform has been explored
- Funder and partners have assessed and agreed to restart
- Regulatory approvals in place (if required)
- All necessary research funding is confirmed
- Funder is satisfied with the arrangements for participant involvement (if required)
- Monitoring and regular checking of risk during the fieldwork is planned
- Research ethics approval is to be obtained (if required)
- Risk of exposure to COVID-19 for staff, doctoral students and participants has been mitigated both on-site (including any overnight accommodation) and travel to the site
- Physical access complies with relevant government restrictions on social distancing
- Assessment of COVID-19 testing and PPE requirements completed
- Research arrangements comply with local organisation / site policies in respect of COVID-19
- Site compliance with regulatory requirements, hygiene and COVID-19 controls has been confirmed by the organisation
- Isolation guidelines and protocols set by the organisation and the local government have been checked
- Clear guidance on safety issues and precautions has been provided to staff, doctoral students and participants
- Participants are asked and reassured about any concerns regarding COVID-19 so that they can feel safe and confident (participants are provided with an information sheet on COVID-19)
- The physical and mental wellbeing of staff, doctoral students, research partners, and participants has been recognised and addressed
- The different ways that COVID-19 and its impact can have on staff, doctoral students and participants have been recognised and addressed
- Information on site safety and site induction has been carried out
Capacity and site readiness
- The PI and Co-I(s) are confirmed and available
- Research staff in place
- The fieldwork site is ‘open for business’ to the full extent required for the study
- All necessary supporting departments have resource and capacity.
- All necessary supplies have been procured and are in place (including PPE)
- Study data have been checked for data integrity to ensure that data remain robust and/or fit for purpose (resumed fieldwork)
- Physical access arrangements for participants have been assessed and are satisfactory
- Permission to resume from the site’s legal entity