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Online Interviews During a Pandemic: Benefits, Limitations, Strategies and the Impact on Early Career Researchers

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Abstract

In response to Covid-19, many universities and research institutions around the world suspended face-to-face interactions in preference for online research. Online data collection presents notable challenges for conducting qualitative interviews. This article discusses some key benefits and limitations to conducting interviews online compared to traditional face-to-face approaches. There is a need for up-to-date methodological guidance on conducting online interviews and balanced comparison between online and face-to-face methods. Moving research online in response to the pandemic is likely to have impacted the experiences of students and early career researchers, which may influence the direction of future qualitative research.
In response to Covid-19, many universities and research institutions around
the world suspended face-to-face interactions in preference for online
research. Online data collection presents notable challenges for conducting
qualitative interviews. This article discusses some key benefits and
limitations to conducting interviews online compared to traditional face-to-
face approaches. There is a need for up-to-date methodological guidance on
conducting online interviews and balanced comparison between online and
face-to-face methods. Moving research online in response to the pandemic
is likely to have impacted the experiences of students and early career
researchers, which may influence the direction of future qualitative research.
INTRODUCTION
Qualitative research enables the in-depth exploration
of people’s lived experiences and perspectives. The
most common form of data collection in qualitative
research is one-to-one interviews (Jamshed, 2014).
Conducting one-to-one interviews, alongside
additional quantitative and qualitative methods,
provides a vital research contribution necessary for
understanding the wider societal and health-related
consequences of the pandemic (Newman et al., 2021;
Teti et al., 2020). However, Covid-19 has forced many
researchers to adapt their research designs to align
with social distancing and other pandemic-related
challenges. In response to the initial outbreak, many
universities and research institutions took the decision
to suspend face-to-face research, resulting in scores
of researchers opting for the use of online virtual
communication tools as an alternative (Sah et al.,
2020). Due to the unpredictability and pervasiveness
of the spread of Covid-19, many qualitative
researchers intending to conduct one-to-one
interviews have chosen to utilise online audio-visual
platforms (such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype,
DISCUSSION PIECE
ONLINE INTERVIEWS DURING
A PANDEMIC: BENEFITS,
LIMITATIONS, STRATEGIES AND
THE IMPACT ON EARLY CAREER
RESEARCHERS
RICHARD BROWN
PSYPAG – ISSUE 123 I DEC 2232
WebEx and Google Meet) as a replacement for more
traditional face-to-face interviews (Lobe et al., 2020;
Pocock et al., 2021).
Though the use of virtual communication tools
for conducting research is by no means new, the
soaring popularity of tele-conferencing platforms for
facilitating remote working and learning during the
pandemic has encouraged the increased use of such
tools for research (Newman et al., 2021; Sah et al.,
2020; Teti et al., 2020). However, it is important to
consider what has been lost and gained by moving
qualitative research online. As the eects of the
pandemic continue to impact research and education,
it is also important to consider the influence that
moving online may have had on students’ and early
career researchers’ experiences and understanding of
qualitative research methods.
THE BENEFITS OF ONLINE
INTERVIEWS
Conducting interviews online has a number of
advantages when compared to more traditional
face-to-face methods (Dodds & Hess, 2020).
Online interviews can provide added convenience
for the participant by allowing them to participate
from the comfort of their home or place of work
(Sah et al., 2020; Varma et al., 2021). By avoiding
the need to travel, online interviews are less time
consuming for participants. Interviews can also
be arranged to accommodate a participant’s
technological preferences by using digital tools
and platforms already familiar to the individual.
There are also substantial logistical advantages
for researchers, such as being able to conduct
interviews from their chosen venue, paperless
scheduling and information exchange, and not
requiring physical health and safety procedures
to be considered for interacting with participants
on site. Multiple online virtual communication
tools also offer real-time transcription capabilities
meaning that researchers are provided with a high-
quality draft transcript upon completion of the
interview (Lobe et al., 2020).
Online interviews allow researchers to contact
participants that would otherwise be hard to
reach due to geographical or access-related
limitations, thus increasing the ability to capture
a range of perspectives and experiences (Sah et
al., 2020; Varma et al., 2021). Attending interviews
online may also help to address potential power
imbalances between researcher and participant.
Traditional face-to-face interviews are typically
conducted in a setting, format and style familiar to
the researcher and unfamiliar to the participant.
Accessing an interview from home using a
personal device may provide the participant with
a sense of familiarity and comfort. This may help
to enhance feelings of control when providing
ongoing consent to participate in the interview.
Online participation offers the opportunity
to simply exit a call if a participant feels
uncomfortable, compared to potentially awkward
face-to-face interactions with a researcher in the
event that a participant chooses to terminate an
interview early (Newman et al., 2021).
Some research sug gests that the added freedom
of online participation may result in individuals
providing less inhibited responses when
discussing sensitive topics compared to face-to-
face interactions (Williams et al., 2012). Though
online interviews are suggested to provide a
viable and advantageous alternative to in-person
communication, particularly during the Covid-19
pandemic, these benefits should be balanced
against a number of potential limitations when
conducting qualitative interview research online.
PSYPAG – ISSUE 123 I DEC 22 33
THE LIMITATIONS OF ONLINE
INTERVIEWS
A key limitation of conducting interview research
online is that it may be less conducive to facilitating
rapport between researcher and participant (Varma
et al., 2021). Developing a certain anity between
researcher and participant can help to provide a
comfortable environment and is necessary for eliciting
in-depth participant responses. As the interviewer is
the instrument of data collection, an online setting may
inhibit the fostering of trust and proximity, thus restricting
the research findings (Salmons, 2012; Varma et al.,
2021). This lack of proximity may also make it harder for
the researcher to pick up on non-verbal cues which could
hinder their ability to successfully steer the discussion
and could influence data collection (Tremblay et al.,
2021). An interaction limited to a computer screen and
audio may miss more subtle or nuanced responses
which can be key to fully understanding a participant’s
perspective or experience (Varma et al., 2021).
Crucially, the distance created between interviewer
and interviewee, could impede the researcher from
being able to eectively detect signs of distress that
would ordinarily be recognised during a face-to-face
interaction, creating the potential for unintended harm or
discomfort (Deakin & Wakefield, 2014; Jenner & Myers,
2019).
Online interviews present a number of challenges
concerning privacy and confidentiality (Varma et al.,
2021). It has been suggested that digital platforms may
provide a false sense of privacy, resulting in individuals
lowering their guard where they would have otherwise
been more security conscious in a face-to-face setting
(Newman et al., 2021). When clicking on an interview
link, participants may automatically sign in to a personal
account and unintentionally reveal their username
or other identifying information to the researcher.
Aparticipant’s physical background during a video
call may also provide potentially identifying information
concerning their location or environment. Displayinga
participant’s background during an online interview
also has the potential for the unwanted disclosure of
personal characteristics defined by the Information
Commissioner’s Oce as ‘special category data’.
Thissensitive information may relate to factors such
as racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or
philosophical beliefs, data concerning health, or data
concerning an individual’s sex life or sexual orientation
(‘Data Protection Act, 2018; Special category data
Information Commissioner’s Oce). However, multiple
online platforms oer a potential solution by using blurred
or virtual backgrounds to avoid revealing details of one’s
personal space (Lobe et al., 2020). The possibility for
unanticipated interruptions, such as a family member
walking in during an interview, also adds to the risk
of unintended disclosures of private information.
Researchers themselves should also be mindful of any
identifying information associated with their background
and digital interactions with participants, which may
include ensuring that their usernames and IP address are
masked (Newman et al., 2021).
Finally, a significant challenge when adopting an online
approach to conducting interview research is how to
mitigate the eects of the digital divide. The digital divide
represents the gap between those who have full access
to digital technologies (such as the internet, smartphones
and computers) and those who do not. This digital divide
is aected most by factors such as age, disability and
socioeconomic status. For example, according to the
Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2021 survey,
over one-third of UK benefit claimants have very low
digital engagement (Lloyds Bank, 2021b). The data
indicate that millions of people across the UK struggle to
engage with online services required to access suppor t
(Lloyds Bank, 2021a, 2021b). This digital divide may
lead to selection biases in research by placing access
restrictions on marginalised pockets of society (Toscos et
al., 2019). The digital barriers imposed by online research
could lead to a lack of representation of certain voices in
society.
PSYPAG – ISSUE 123 I DEC 2234
FUTURE STRATEGIES FOR
CONDUCTING ONLINE
INTERVIEWS
Conducting interview research should not be considered
a riskier or less valid research approach in comparison
to traditional face-to-face interactions. However, it
should be acknowledged that online and face-to-face
interactions are not the same, and that each bring
their own advantages and disadvantages (Newman
et al., 2021). For example, Salmons (2012) previously
provided comprehensive guidance for conducting online
interviews. This included highlighting the need for an
in-depth consideration of the researcher’s motivation
for conducting the research, appropriate sampling
and recruitment strategies, guidance on interview
style, appropriate selection of digital tools, and full
consideration of potential ethical issues. A number of
researchers have sought to provide updated guidance in
response to the increasing popularity of online interview
research during the Covid-19 pandemic (Dodds &
Hess, 2020; Newman et al., 2021; Pocock et al., 2021;
Sah et al., 2020; Teti et al., 2020; Tremblay et al., 2021;
Varma et al., 2021). However, given the ever-evolving
digital landscape, there is a need for researchers to
reach a consensus and to cultivate guides of best
practice for safely and eectively conducting online
interview research, both during and beyond the Covid-19
pandemic. As digital powerhouses continue to modify
the terms and capabilities of their online communication
platforms, collaboration between researchers and
software designers is encouraged to produce tools that
provide successful means of data collection.
THE IMPACT ON STUDENTS AND
EARLY CAREER RESEARCHERS
The move to online data collection during the pandemic
may have had a particular impact on students and
early career researchers intending to conduct interview
research. Many post-graduate and doctoral research
projects with set deadlines may have required
researchers to pivot to online methods, due to their
inability to ‘wait out’ the restrictions of the pandemic (Sah
et al., 2020). This is likely to have required significant
eort on the part of junior researchers to adaptively
redesign their projects. The restrictions placed on
face-to-face data collection may also have lasting
eects on budding qualitative researchers who ‘cut their
teeth’ during the pandemic. The inevitable imbalance
in researcher experiences between face-to-face
interactions and online interviews is likely to produce
a bias towards digital methods. Researchers may be
unable to draw meaningful comparisons bet ween online
and face-to-face interview techniques due to a lack of
experience. A ‘new normal’ for conducting qualitative
interview research may therefore be dictated, not by a
balanced consideration of methodological strengths,
butby an imbalance in experience and access to
alternative methods. This highlights the need for students
and early career researchers interested in qualitative
research to invest time in developing their experience
and understanding of face-to-face research methods in
the wake of the pandemic. This may help researchers
to make appropriate decisions when designing their
research and ensure that future research practices are
best suited to the aims and objectives of the study.
AUTHOR
RICHARD BROWN
Doctoral Researcher,
Psychology Department, Northumbria University,
Newcastle
richard6.brown@northumbria.ac.uk
PSYPAG – ISSUE 123 I DEC 22 35
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