Technology and Research
Review of technology options available that can support the research process.
Remote working and research activities
Information Services has developed general guidelines to support navigating on-line working on various University-supported platforms (Teams, SharePoint, Skype for Business and general information on online safety and best practice on-line)
The National Cyber Security Centre and the Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure has also developed specific advice around cyber safety.
Qualitative and participatory research
Many researchers are having to rethink their methods and the ways in which they collaborate, using technology to undertake participatory research in more distanced ways.
Alternative digital options may be considered for focus groups or face-to-face data collection – and indeed, such options may be helpful for research that is more sensitive or where anonymity is required.
However, the available technical and financial resources, and preferences of research participants or the technology infrastructure of the geographic location may also impact choices.
Some of the advantages and disadvantages of communication tools as used within the research context are summarised below.
Teams can be used by collaborators/participants outside the University who can be linked as guests and can be used for group or 1:1 situations.
Recording is available through the tool and within a secure supported environment behind the University firewall.
Anyone with an internet connection and any email account can join the Teams meeting via the browser.
Importantly guests who are research participants can join anonymously by mobile devices with video options disabled.
Although a better experience is offered if participants have access to client software, this may not be the case for certain groups and individuals and the browser join option will provide sufficient capacity.
Microsoft has produced guidance on how to join a meeting without a Teams account (via Edge or Chrome web browsers).
For engagement that is longer term with participants needing to use the app on a more continuous basis, then eventually participants may need to purchase Office 365, which may be a consideration in the initial selection of preferred tool. Teams also includes functionality by which people can join sessions via just a phone line, which could be particularly useful in contexts where there is limited or no internet availability.
Long distance charges could apply and therefore further information should be sought on how to take advantage of toll free dial in as although there may not be software use charges, there will be charges to individuals relating to the particular plan for their device.
Teams is often also a suitable option for some research projects in terms of wider benefits due to the integration with MS office suite.
Teams programme automatically creates a shadow sharepoint site which can be used for collaboration on broader project activities and be a central resource store for the project.
Collaborate can be used as a tool for research, and can facilitate 1:1 meetings or focus groups and allow participants to join through a guest link and remain anonymous, whilst also being accessible through web browsers Chrome and Safari (so participants do not need to have prior access to their own software).
All options can be disabled except audio, meaning the tool provides a supported environment for confidentiality behind the University's firewall. Collaborate can be accessed through mobile devices.
Charges on data would apply for participants depending on their own mobile device plans. Collaborate does not have capacity for toll free numbers and is also not a familiar application outside of the sector and therefore is more limited in its application in non-academic contexts or those in which individuals or organisations have resourcing challenges.
Zoom is a recent platform added to the University's portfolio by Information Services who have worked closely to ensure this version of the service complies with strict University security and privacy policies. It should be used by researchers instead of personal accounts.
The University has disabled some features (for example file exchange through chat and local recording - although cloud recording is available).
There are also particular recommended protocols for use of Zoom and more robust use of the waiting room.
In addition to the enhanced security features, use of the University enterprise version avoids any minute cap on sessions.
Similar to Teams, Zoom can be used by participants without having to have a licence (although there is a 40-min cap on initiated sessions under such standard accounts).
It can also be accessed by a range of browsers (Explorer,Edge, Chrome, Firefox, Safari) and therefore is readily accessed by a range of individual users, particularly within LMIC contexts or in general settings.
Zoom is also usable on mobile devices, although its functionality is more limited (particularly visual capacity).
The platform also offers some toll-free dial in arrangements with particular countries.
At the present time Information Services discourages this platform in situations where research exchanges are sensitive, confidential or personally-identifiable material is being discussed. Some improvements could be made to research risks by using a standard encrypted digital recorder instead of the Zoom cloud recording feature.
In particular, additional care should be taken when attending Zoom meetings initiated by others in the research group who are not using enhanced security versions.
1:1 interviews can be undertaken using direct phone communication and recording through an encrypted device.
Further information will be posted on free conference calling and the suitability of those platforms for participant research, particularly when people do not have access to laptops or smart phones or not comfortable with other technology platforms.
Best practice in selecting participatory technology tools
Whichever digital tool is selected, researchers should ensure they revisit ethical review and scope of consent (and how to manage withdrawal), as reflected by the parameters of the technology.
Whilst using many of these tools, project leads will also need to be careful to actively modify settings to obtain the level of privacy and anonymity required.
Researchers should be careful in considering the use of any third party tool that is not supported by the University in terms of how it may compromise research participants, data and confidentiality.
Even when using supported tools, researchers will need to be mindful that people can use personal recording devices without the knowledge of the host which could compromise group sessions and therefore it is important to understand the trust level of spaces and the reassurances that are provided to participants.
Understanding of the participation or fall-out ratio for on-line research is evolving, as researchers will need to reflect on how to manage over recruitment and also how to achieve parity across groups when for example technology fails during key sessions or when key groups are less familiar with the tools.
Technology offers additional research possibilities of gathering very geographic dispersed participants in the same focus group, however risk management plans do need to assess the resources and infrastructure across locations and participants and identify contingencies for such considerations in mitigation plans (for example population groups, alternative dial-in numbers, etc).
In terms of financial impact and inclusion, it is recommended that the use and selection of tools take account of the financial impact on participants or organisations where relevant and that they are made aware of the implications of audio or video calls in terms of costs for research participation.
Tools should also be considered in terms of the contribution to equality, diversity and inclusion more generally and any implicit imbalances for the research study.
Securing research technology and data files
Research projects may face new challenges in managing the hardware and software used by other staff or collaborators.
All equipment procured through the University will be encrypted at source, however staff may now have to consider alternative arrangements and may have to support collaborators through encryption processes. In such situations, researchers should follow best practice around encryption.
Follow-up advice is available through your local school IT support.
Assessing risks of project tools for research integrity and information security
Data management plans support thinking about the range of considerations for data and research but they should be reviewed to operationalise during project implementation stages.
Given the changes in practices of many research teams, there may be a range of situations in which use of platforms and technology creates new risks to data, subjects, privacy and security.
In such situations, researchers should complete Data Privacy Impact Assessments (linked to ethical reviews) in order to inform the evaluation and mitigation of risks.
Researchers will need to be clear about the data journey in projects and to reflect on responsibilities in relation to how technology will support GDPR requirements, particularly around the key roles of data controllers and processors, and the transfer arrangements and platforms importing/exporting data between countries (especially outside of the European Union).
Options to store and manage your data
Information Services have summarised helpful considerations to assist in the selecting of University-supported storage solutions in their Quick Guide to Research Data Storage Options.
The guide profiles Wiki, OneDrive, SharePoint, Datastore, datasync, data safe haven, datashare and Datavault.
These solutions are reviewed in terms of their suitability for projects relating to the active nature of data, geographic location of data and GDPR compliance, sensitivity of data and encyption needs, range of users and access requirements, external collaboration, capacity and cost limitations.
There are costs associated with Datastore and Datavault.