What might a completely digital research project look like?

In the last 6 months, many researchers (including research students) have had to adapt their research designs to make them COVID compatible. For many this move has been to digitise their methods. Can we interview people via Zoom calls? How can we recruit if we can’t actually enter the target setting, like the hospital or the public space?

As someone that has been working in primarily digital spaces for the bulk of research career, I don’t really need to do this pivot! Mostly, my work is already fully COVID compatible. (Although, ironically, I had just had a project approved in November 2019 that did involve in-person data generation, and now am having to change this to online workshops!).

I draw on my experiences doing digital social science research for nearly 20 years, with a focus on illegal drugs, mainly but not exclusively with people who use drugs recreationally.

Digital technologies provided a way of reaching this population. They are considered hard to reach because they do not typical come into contact with health, justice, and social services. In the 2000-2010s, web forums were a popular location for group discussions either directly about drug use or more tangentially in relation to settings of use, like dance music festivals or nightclubs where drugs are typically consumed.

In the early 2010s, the first darknet markets emerged, where drugs are traded in ebay like marketplaces accessible through anonymising software, e.g. Tor. These spaces not only functioned as marketplaces but also had web forums which hosted discussion between market participants who typically were also people who consumed drugs. Drug use and harms discussion also takes place in these settings, in addition to discussions about the marketplaces themselves.

In the later 2010s and into 2020, the digital ecosystems within which we are living in have shifted such that big tech companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter – are major players in how people can discuss drugs and associated issues in digital spaces.

Here I wanted to reflect on three different aspects of my digital research practices that may assist people facing this COVID methods pivot.

Cross-sectional transnational anonymous web survey
During the last 6 months, at Global Drug Survey, we decided to launch a special edition of the annual survey that focused on how drug use may have changed over the period of lockdown – in our survey this was Apr-May-June of 2020. We just released findings last week, here’s an Australian findings summary. You can read more about how we do GDS here. To summarise, the GDS survey is anonymous, the GDS organisation is independent (so can be nimble in responding to new drug trends), and we rely on partnerships with media and community organisations to promote the survey and return findings to those organisations rapidly.

I’m also part of the Global Cannabis Cultivation Research Consortium. Just this month we launched our second global anonymous survey of cannabis cultivators (if you are, or if you know, a cannabis grower – do check it out!). The first one was conducted in 2012-2013 when the policy landscape of cannabis was quite different to 2020. We have written about the specific challenges of transnational digitally mediated survey research here.

Text chat qualitative interviews
During my PhD in 2008, I used text chat programs to do qualitative interviews with young people who were involved in online forums where drugs were discussed. They were typically also engaged in the dance music and clubbing scenes. You can read more about that method here. Back in 2012, my conclusions were that people who use drugs found online interviewing to be “an acceptable and convenient way to contribute to research” and that “[w]ith adequate preparation to develop technical and cultural competencies, online interviewing offers an effective way of engaging with young people that is worthy of consideration by researchers in the alcohol and other drug field”.

Since then I’ve supervised students and have led an NHMRC funded project which employed these methods successfully. Dr Jodie Grigg used encrypted chat interviews with a similar population in 2016, Michala Kowalski used encrypted chat interviews to interview people who bought drugs from darknet markets in 2018, and Robin Van Der Sanden is currently interviewing people who report buying or selling drugs using social media apps or platforms in 2020. Jodie, Michala and Robin are all utilising the wickr platform, as unlike any of the alternatively, wickr does not require that the interviewer have the phone number of the interviewee. This makes it possible to conduct truly anonymous interviews.

Digital engagement with research sites and/or communities
Back in the 2000s doing my PhD about online forums where drugs were discussed, I noted that there were very different reactions by online communities to research. It ranged from actively welcoming, to supportive, to neutral, to actively opposed! I’ve written about my experiences engaging with these digital communities here.

Increasingly, the data generated by individuals in digital spaces becomes the data that can be utilised for research. We need to ask some important questions though. Who owns the data? Who should we be engaging here? My approach has typically involved an active engagement of people and groups: I’ve written about this approach with my colleague and friend Dr Alexia Maddox in this paper. As just one example, the approach of the digital community Bluelight.org is outlined here and here.

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