Online behavioural research is the clear solution for behavioural science PhDs thwarted by the COVID crisis
COVID-19 has dis­rupt­ed doc­tor­al train­ing pro­grammes. But at least in the behav­iour­al sci­ences stu­dents can con­tin­ue their primary research online. Phew.

A big issue facing behav­iour­al science PhDs

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has had massive impli­ca­tions for doc­tor­al stu­dents and train­ing across the world. Within the UK, a report has recent­ly been pub­lished by UK Research and Inno­va­tion (UKRI) doc­u­ment­ing the effects of COVID-19 on their doc­tor­al stu­dents. Many have report­ed having to put projects on hold with no clear date as to when they would be able to access uni­ver­si­ty resources and work­spaces again, leading to dis­tress and worry about meeting dead­lines. Others report­ed that while they are now able to access their work­space in a COVID-secure way, they have health con­cerns or caring respon­si­bil­i­ties which mean they are still working remotely.

While this has clear impacts on all doc­tor­al stu­dents, behav­iour­al sci­en­tists may be at a greater dis­ad­van­tage due to the inher­ent need to work face to face with other people. With a reliance on human par­tic­i­pants to inves­ti­gate behav­iour, many behav­iour­al science doc­tor­al stu­dents may face a longer wait until they can collect in-person data in a COVID-secure manner.

UKRI’s recent report states that many doc­tor­al projects will need to be adjust­ed to meet the dead­line of their funding period, and that stu­dents should find ways with their super­vi­sor to com­plete on time. This means there will be no blanket exten­sion for UKRI funded doc­tor­al stu­dents, although some addi­tion­al funding has been made avail­able to stu­dents deemed most in need. This is highly con­cern­ing for many researchers who may have exper­i­ments set up and ready to go, but no clear idea of when they will be able to get back in the lab.

Stu­dents and aca­d­e­mics across the UK have urged UKRI to have a rethink, or to at least provide more infor­ma­tion about these adjust­ments stu­dents are expect­ed to make. Do the adjust­ments mean a shorter research project? Less hands on expe­ri­ence with par­tic­i­pants? Lower expec­ta­tions for high-powered exper­i­ments? This is a big concern, with stu­dents worried that if they can’t meet with par­tic­i­pants for data col­lec­tion then it may impact on the quality of their overall thesis. Will this then have longer term impli­ca­tions on the future of these doc­tor­al stu­dents? Will they have less pub­lish­ing or net­work­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties? A big concern for many of these doc­tor­al stu­dents is the fear that these adjust­ments may dimin­ish their achieve­ment of com­plet­ing a doc­tor­al programme.

Ashleigh’s expe­ri­ence

Picture of Ashleigh Johnstone

My PhD was in cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science, aiming to inves­ti­gate poten­tial cog­ni­tive changes asso­ci­at­ed with martial arts prac­tice. During this time I worked with hun­dreds of par­tic­i­pants, col­lect­ing data from a variety of cog­ni­tive tasks. I dread the thought of how many hours I spent sat in the lab col­lect­ing this data — often having weeks when I was working with par­tic­i­pants back-to-back 9–6 every day. If a par­tic­i­pant was late then it had a knock on effect for the rest of the day, and if they decided not to turn up, then there was a wasted hour in the day — perhaps time for a quick burst of writing, but not enough time to get stuck into any­thing in any depth. Design­ing exper­i­ments, col­lect­ing and then analysing data is a core part of a PhD, and I am incred­i­bly grate­ful that I was able to do this before COVID-19 arrived. Yet I have still always won­dered whether there is a more effi­cient way to collect data in behav­iour­al sciences.

Now I have a job at Gorilla, a spe­cial­ist in online exper­i­ments and I’m real­is­ing there really is a way to collect data more effi­cient­ly. I have only been here for four days, and I have already crafted exper­i­ments and tasks within minutes — no really! A picture cat­e­gori­sa­tion task took me 15 minutes to create, and a spelling task took about 20 minutes (includ­ing a trip to the kettle to make a hot choco­late). I have been amazed at the sim­plic­i­ty, but it gets even better. The ease with which Gorilla can be paired with a recruit­ment service such as Pro­lif­ic means you can have your data col­lect­ed in a day. Imagine the time saved! Sure, the study con­cep­tion and data analy­sis would take the same amount of time, but the experiment build­ing could be reduced from weeks to one day, and col­lect­ing data from a large sample could have been done in an hour rather than one hour per participant!

I came to the real­i­sa­tion that Gorilla could help all these behav­iour­al science doc­tor­al stu­dents who still need to collect data without sac­ri­fic­ing the value of their hard-earned PhD. If any­thing, the speed in which exper­i­ments can be built and data can be col­lect­ed will leave more time for dis­sem­i­na­tion of find­ings and net­work­ing! On top of all that, they’ll be even better pre­pared for the future of behav­iour­al science in acad­e­mia and indus­try as there is a growing move­ment towards online research tools.

A solu­tion for exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and behav­iour­al scientists

It is vitally impor­tant that doc­tor­al researchers impact­ed by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic are made aware of these online tools, as they may allow some projects to get back up and running quite quickly.

They are a much quicker (and more COVID-secure) way of data col­lec­tion from human par­tic­i­pants than tra­di­tion­al in-person methods. Spend­ing a few hours or days putting the experiment togeth­er and then letting it run on a par­tic­i­pant recruit­ment plat­form for an hour or two while data is col­lect­ed is much more time effi­cient than sitting in a behav­iour­al science lab for hours on end while each par­tic­i­pant makes their way through the tasks. Addi­tion­al­ly, some tools don’t even require the user to be able to code, meaning that there is no need to learn a new pro­gram­ming lan­guage to be able to set up an experiment. This will allow researchers to begin moving forward with their projects again, and hope­ful­ly begin to relieve some of the stress coming from worries about when data col­lec­tion can re-start.

In fact, doing research this way can also lead to more pow­er­ful, larger sampled research, with par­tic­i­pant groups that go beyond just under­grad­u­ate stu­dents. This will allay any fear about whether the quality of the projects and the thesis. Doc­tor­al stu­dents often have high expec­ta­tions of them­selves and their work, they want to produce work that is to the best of their ability and a quality that they’re proud of. This pan­dem­ic is nobody’s fault, but it is having a direct impact on some­thing they have worked so hard to achieve. Making use of these online methods can help them reach their goal of a quality PhD.

Using online research tools can help get researchers back up and running, whilst remain­ing COVID-secure and not putting their health or the health of their par­tic­i­pants at risk, in a quick and easy manner. Let’s help get our future aca­d­e­mics col­lect­ing data again!

Ready to get started? To help researchers get online quickly, Gorilla are offer­ing weekly onboard­ing webi­na­rs, so that researchers can hit the ground running. See you there!

Ash­leigh Johnstone

Ash­leigh is a recent PhD grad­u­ate and worked from 2020 — 2022 for Gorilla Experiment Builder who are rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing online behav­iour­al science in acad­e­mia and beyond. After writing and sub­mit­ting her thesis during the pan­dem­ic, she is on a per­son­al mission to ensure no student gets left behind. 

Jo Ever­shed

Jo is the CEO and co-founder of Caul­dron and Gorilla. Her mission is to provide behav­iour­al sci­en­tists with the tools needed to improve the scale and impact of the evi­dence-based inter­ven­tions that benefit society.