Changing my research plans in light of COVID-19

My kid has been sick the past few days. Today is our first day back at Montessori/co-working space since last Friday, and while I’ve been pondering how the spread of coronavirus will impact my research the whole time we’ve been out, today I actually plan to figure out what I’m going to do about it.

Yesterday, Governor Roy Cooper declared a State of Emergency in North Carolina. The press release includes several suggestions. The one that is pertinent to my research is this one:

NC DHHS recommends that people at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 avoid large groups of people as much as possible. This includes gatherings such as concert venues, conventions, church services, sporting events, and crowded social events.

One of the key pieces of my research involves interviewing and observing at conventions. I’m not sure whether or not I am at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, though I suspect I am, due to having pre-diabetic Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and autoimmune thyroiditis. Autoimmune disesases don’t make one automatically immunocompromised, but I don’t trust that there aren’t some hidden conditions going on in my body that would make me such. Additionally, I spend a lot of time with my son’s grandparents on both sides of the family, and all of them are in high risk categories. Even though so far none of the cons I was planning to use as field sites have been canceled, I am reluctant to attend conventions myself.

The interview protocol I’m using requires participants to create a graphic representation of their information horizon, drawing themselves in relationship to the resources they use when they have an information need related to cosplay. My plan was to do the interviews in person, giving participants blank paper.

One potential solution is to add more cons - further afield than the initial 50-mile radius I’d originally planned to maintain - that are occurring later in the year, in hopes that coronavirus risk will be reduced by then.

But with the situation changing so rapidly, I don’t feel comfortable relying on that.

So of course, I’m considering how to conduct these interviews online. I have access to Microsoft Zoom through my university, which provides excellent quality for video calls and easy recording. In one sense, this would actually be easier than a face-to-face interview. Except for the graphic representation piece. I could have participants draw on the Zoom whiteboard, but that would require me to give them a tutorial in the whiteboard features. What my colleague/committee member Casey Rawson suggested, and what I’ll most likely do, is have participants draw on some paper at their homes, then both hold the paper up to the webcam for me to see and take a photo of the paper and email/text/DM it to me.

I was concerned as to whether this shift would change my IRB exemption, but after examining the type of exemption I have, I don’t think it will. It is no less secure or protective of participants’ privacy than face-to-face interviews, and in some ways, it is moreso.

That still leaves the question of observations. Part of the unique contribution of my study is that it is the first to examine a blended affinity space, a set of spaces where people gather around a common interest both online and in-person. (Earlier studies looked at World of WarCraft but not BlizzCon, and Minecraft but not Minefaire.) If things go very badly and there are no cons, well, that changes things quite a bit.

On the other hand: Everything is data, so seeing how participants in the cosplay affinity space itself handle avoiding cons or con cancellation will be instructive in and of itself.

Whew.

I’ll figure it out.

I really just want to graduate before I’m 40, y’all.

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh