Methods: Data were collected from nine community partners at seven research partner agencies in Georgia and Texas using semi-structured interviews. Each of the community respondents had participated in community-university research projects prior to the pandemic and reflected on their adaptations, and those of their clients (research participants) to virtual research formats. Interviews of community research partners were transcribed for analysis.
We employed a three-phase process of analysis involving independent coders. The first reviewer conducted the initial coding and identification of tentative themes. We used an open coding procedure that generated preliminary codes which were subsequently revised to develop categories, and ultimately, themes. The second coder provided an independent analysis. For the third phase, another independent coder conducted a check of the previous two analyses and identified both common and unique themes.
Findings: Four common themes emerged across the interviews. The following broad themes emerged in particular about shifting to a virtual environment: Benefits of the virtual environment: (1) Removal of physical barriers to participation (i.e., transportation), (2) Removal of physical dangers to participation (i.e., COVID-19 and health hazards). Greater demands on individuals and groups: (1) Adaptation to new cognitive and emotional demands on participants, (2) Change for participants and systems of care that may be challenging, (3) Time to understand how remote research works and to adapt comfortably to virtual communications, absent familiar cues. Challenges to relationship building: (1) Fostering trust built on mutuality, shared values, shared experiences, and emotional connections, (2) Forming and maintaining relationships. Communication challenges associated with the virtual environment: (1) Requiring brevity for effectiveness, (2) Due to reduced bandwidth of information, poorer context, less personal, exchanges are less meaningful and tend towards unidirectional and greater formality, (3) More frequent virtual meetings are needed.
Conclusions and Implications: The sudden shift to a virtual research environment was perceived by community partners as a consequential alteration to prior conduct of in-person research. This implication impacted not only their own relationships with researchers, but also the participation and well-being of their clients who participate in virtual studies. The transition to virtual research has largely been framed as tactical responses to the challenges of participant recruitment and accessible and reliable communication technology. Concerns and opportunities of a more strategic nature as in problem-solving remote relationship building, shared experience and values, changing roles, and building participant capacity receives little attention as the issues undergirding the conduct of ethical and social justice mission-alignment.