Research in Lockdown: challenges, adaptions, & looking to the future

Written by Annaliese Micallef-Grimaud @LieseGrimaud & Thomas Magnus Lennie @lennie_tm

Everyone has felt the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown in different ways and similarly there have been substantial differences in the ways people have adapted to keep their work progressing. The different stages at which individuals were in their research projects at the time of the pandemic played a substantial role in responses to the imposed ‘home-office’ restrictions. People have shared their lockdown experiences with us and how it affected their research and everyday routine, both from the Music and Science Lab team; ranging from PhD candidates at different stages in their PhD, to academic staff members, as well as two PhD candidates from other universities (York and Sheffield). Finally, we identify the different adaptive methods utilised by researchers and highlight positive aspects that emerged from the working-from-home environment that we are going to take forward.

A new working environment: The impact of lockdown & adaptive methods

Some of the most prominent impacts of the lockdown have led to restricted access to certain resources, with particular disruptive effects on lab-based experiments. With the closure of buildings and social distancing restrictions, lab-based data collection had to be delayed indefinitely. As an alternative, studies were moved to an online platform, however, this might not always be possible. This heavily depends on the experiment design and materials required for the experiment to run. Certain licensed commercial software utilised for studies might not be available to use in a web-based environment, and on laptops/desktops outside of the lab or department grounds. This also applies to specialised hardware such as skin conductance response equipment and EEG, in which case the issue is two-fold. Apart from the inaccessibility of equipment due to the closure of buildings, another important resource for lab-based experiments became unreachable: participants. With lockdown and social distancing regulations in place, it is not possible to carry out studies which require the physical attendance of participants. In particular, research that involves aging comparisons and older individuals as participants might be impacted more as this vulnerable population might not be accessible for an indefinite amount of time. Therefore, sometimes it is not possible to completely replicate the original experiment and its methodologies in an online environment. This notion motivated researchers to adapt to the current situation by designing new studies which can be fully run online; utilising similar methodologies and investigating related research questions whilst also being slightly different to the original lab-based experiments that were supposed to happen. Apart from utilising similar methodologies, the lockdown has also pushed researchers to explore new technologies that might be utilised as alternative methods of collecting data remotely, such as applications that allow participants to collect movement data via their own smartphones using the devices’ built-in accelerometers, to substitute motion capture data collection that usually happens in labs, or using participants’ personal webcams as tools for eye-tracking studies. These motivations for a more in-depth planning and development of experiment methodologies are interesting outcomes of the lockdown in order to accommodate the current as well as future climate. Nevertheless, sometimes creating new studies may not always be possible, due to project collaborations and fixed commitments and deadlines that would have been already established and may be time sensitive.

Researchers who are currently in the writing up stage of their work were not affected as much by the lockdown with regards to resource accessibility. Nowadays, most reading resources and tools are available online, and most journals and books can be found on the priceless resource that is the world wide web. Nevertheless, university libraries also made arrangements for researchers who need to make use of resources specific to the library, by having the opportunity to request scans of book chapters and articles not available online.

Our first MSL remote meeting.
Our first MSL remote meeting.  

Apart from implications on research, the lockdown impacted researchers from other perspectives. The loss of the workspace and shift to working from home may have caused a major disruption to the everyday routine that one would have established over the years. Building up a new routine and becoming comfortable with it may be rather time-consuming and taxing, from the simple task of identifying an appropriate workspace and getting accustomed to it, as well as perhaps the novelty of having to share a workspace with house mates. Apart from adapting to their new routine, most individuals also had to adapt to their household’s new routines, and how these overlapped and sometimes had to be merged together. This inadvertently makes working-from-home more challenging, as the number of potential distractions is at a high. Apart from trying to define a separation between work and home environments, the lockdown brought about other matters, such as home-schooling children, which meant researchers having to re-work their routine around their children’s as well as having the task of tutoring them. Aside from the challenge of working with novel, multiple distractions, the current situation also brought about anxiety and challenges to individuals’ mental health, what with fearing for family’s and friends’ safety, especially for individuals who are overseas, as well as the notion of being confined indoors for most of the day. These elements contribute to a lack of productivity as concentration levels are inadvertently affected by all these extraordinary circumstances.  

The most common coping method for this current climate utilised by researchers has been a greater focus on mental health wellness and fitness, by maximising the daily allowance allocated to outdoor exercise, such as going for walks or runs in the countryside, or for us Durham-based individuals, strolls next to the picturesque river. The lockdown restriction on outdoor activities made individuals appreciate nature more, and take more attention to their wellbeing, which has been one positive outcome of the lockdown. 

In the face of adversity: Keeping your research progressing

Aside from research method adaptations, researchers needed to generate unique ways to carry on with their research. For instance, the teaching staff and more experienced researchers have taken the opportunity to look back at old data to try and answer their current questions. Many have noted the benefit of this more broadly in helping to focus future experimental directions and generate new ideas. Others have persevered with writing papers and other academic work, noting the affordance the current climate offers to approach a backlog of data that’s been waiting to be organised and published. 

At the other end of the scale, doctoral students and early careers researchers have typically not had the benefit of existing data to asses or a backlog of papers to write. Although, opportunities to use publicly accessible datasets through sources such as OSF were mentioned, relevant datasets remain rare in our field. Instead their focus was typically placed upon learning and developing new methodologies and writing-up. The focus towards new methodologies has shown to be incredibly beneficial with each new approach offering experience with new research skills, a quality that cannot be undervalued for those who wish to continue into the world of research.  Academics who have been more concentrated on the writing elements of their research have noted fewer limitations or differences in their work. Many of the materials our discipline relies on becoming more and more accessible online and open-access. However, the most significant impacts, as noted above, have been on the lack of a support network and community that allows for the informal exchange of ideas. Tools like Focusmate, a virtual co-working environment that matches you up with strangers to work together for a timed session, have been suggested as helpful. Yet, the most popular variation of this is the emergence of small online working sessions with colleagues from your field. The added benefit of this is not only more focused idea sharing but a new form of networking.  

Research in the ‘new normal’: What’s worth keeping and why 

Moving forward we define our future society – and therefore research environment – as the ‘new normal’ but what does this really mean for research? Are we to go back to what we did before with mandatory masks and social-distancing? Or have we as researchers developed a new set of skills that has benefited our work and created new opportunities? 

This can quite neatly be broken down into two categories, accessibility and inclusion. Accessibility is something that we as a research community have been working towards steadily, greater access to online resources, a stronger focus on open-access, more functional online work sharing tools and greater diversity of participants through online experiments. This highlights the importance of transparent research that science is moving towards. Experimental methodology, design and hypothesis can be pre-registered with open-access journals prior to the experimental data collection. This has been adopted by several members of the MSL whilst working from home and is something that should be encouraged in the future, to ensure transparent and robust research. The recent pandemic has only accelerated the process and shown just how much more we can get from these tools when we need to. There is however one scenario where this is not the case. Face-to-face participant interaction and lab-based experiments are still a staple in the music and science field and access to participants is a privilege. We as researchers must be careful about how we use this resource and not undervalue the data we receive from it. Reappraising the value of our data through different questions will help us get the most out of our research and not waste our precious time and resources 

Inclusion again is not a new idea and one that academia more broadly has been working towards and the recent change to our daily lives has allowed us to better ourselves in this regard. Part-time and distance students have been able to feel more involved and contribute to our research community. Colleagues from further afield have become more involved as part of our community, introducing new ideas, methodologies and collaborations without the environmental costs of increased travel. Finally, but possibly most importantly, lies the area where accessibility and inclusion overlap. The freedom a new style of working offers places a greater focus on wellness and the importance of acknowledging different working patterns. Along with a greater appreciation for the time we spend outside. One of the best activities the MSL has incorporated is research walks and meetings outside, rather than in the office, something that would be greatly beneficial to retain in the future.  

Members of the MSL team at their first socially-distancing outside meeting.

Conclusion

The MSL Team like many researchers have had a variety of different and very individual challenges to overcome during lockdown, many of which remain even as restrictions are loosened. Research as a whole can benefit from several adaptions made to the way we conduct research as individuals and as a community. Accessibility and inclusion are the key concepts to focus on as we move forward and look to generate more transparent and robust research with a focus on re-evaluation and getting more out of the data we have access to. This would allow us to make the most out of our valuable time and resources. Finally, as we move forward into a new and undefined research environment, we can take the opportunity to design it in a way that allows for better research, time-management, well-being and work-life balance. 

Written by Annaliese Micallef-Grimaud & Thomas Magnus Lennie 

A special thank you for everyone who contributed to this blog post and kindly shared their ideas with us; The MSL Team: Kelly Jakubowski, Tuomas Eerola, Laura Leante, Martin Clayton, Simone Tarsitani, George Athanasopoulos, Chara Steliou, Matthias Lichtenfeld, Imre Lahdelma, Liila Taruffi, as well as, Diana Kayser (York) & Rory Kirk (Sheffield) 

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