Foundations of ethical and high-quality data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will persist for the foreseeable future, including changing the way we conduct research in the field. From the first few field experiments in the late 1990s, such as the deworming study in Kenya, to the present day in which J-PAL affiliates have conducted more than 1000 field-based randomized evaluations, the experimental approach to development research has come a long way.

There have been many innovations in data collection methods over the past few months to adapt to contactless research. Many research organizations, including J-PAL, have shifted to data collection through phone surveys, as field activities remain halted. As we support and strengthen these innovations, we are also taking time to reflect on the fundamentals of field research, and why they remain crucial as we pivot to new methods for conducting surveys.

Research ethics

Field-based randomized evaluations involve a variety of tools for both survey and non-survey based data collection, such as survey instruments, consent and confidentiality documentation, and administrative data records. Which ethical principles inform the creation and usage of such tools? 

The Belmont Report 1978 lays down the foundation of ethical research using three key principles: 1) Respect for Persons: people’s right to make their own decisions must be respected; 2) Beneficence: researchers should seek to increase wellbeing, and avoid knowingly doing harm; 3) Justice: there should be fairness in the allocation of risks and benefits between different groups of people.

These three principles, which position research as a tool to improve people’s lives, are central in the design of our organization-wide research protocols, as well as the protocols for individual research studies. In practice, this involves training and certifying all staff directly involved in research in best practices for working with human subjects, review of all planned research activities by independent institutional review boards, and following global standards of research transparency

Recruiting and training field teams, and quality control measures

Recruited from the local communities in which we work, J-PAL’s field staff play a crucial role in the research lifecycle, from the piloting stage to each round of data collection. Their training and skill development is essential for high quality data and therefore, each research project team invests a great deal of time on planning and delivering field staff training before beginning data collection. 

Over the last decade, J-PAL South Asia has built an exceptional team of more than 1200 well-trained enumerators who are at the forefront of translating ethics, quality, and innovations into practice. Technical training and on-the-job mentorship equip each enumerator with an understanding of research ethics and compliance, usage of survey instruments, technical knowledge of digital data collection, and soft skills to interact with study participants while upholding the principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. 

To ensure compliance with research guidelines, J-PAL research staff observe "minimum-must-dos" and best practices to ensure the ethical conduct of research, data security, and data quality, from a project’s inception to its closure. These standards include encryption of data at all stages of a study, removal of personally identifiable data to protect participants, conducting “back-checks” and accompaniments during field surveys, and conducting “high frequency checks” to catch logical inconsistencies in survey data.  

Pivoting during the pandemic

Adapting standard field research projects to the world of phone surveys can be challenging for various reasons, including low responsiveness and the difficulty of establishing trust and rapport with respondents over the phone. Designing and conducting research in this setting involves adaptation, but the fundamental building blocks remain unchanged. 

From the suspension of in-person field activities in mid-March to June 28th, J-PAL South Asia is conducting phone-based surveys with more than 100,000 respondents across eight Indian states. The transition has required an entirely new set of protocols and guidelines, which are publicly accessible in this compilation of resources on budgeting, staff training, and quality assurance mechanism for phone surveys, developed by J-PAL and Innovations for Poverty Action staff. 

The Belmont principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice guide our transition, and have informed the development of practices including collecting electronic signatures to properly document the respondent’s consent, budgeting for additional training of enumerators to ensure their proficiency in data security protocols, call recording and call conferencing protocols to facilitate accompaniments and back-checks, and the creation of a call-masking plugin to protect respondent privacy.

The primary consideration underpinning all of these adaptations and innovations is preserving the use of research as a tool for improving human lives.

Learn more about J-PAL South Asia's COVID-19 response