While there have been a number of research initiatives centered on supporting faculty in shifting to virtual instruction in light of the COVID-19 pandemicand deservedly sowe have learned far less about the challenges that faculty are facing as researchers during this disruptive time. Back in March, our colleague Danielle Cooper speculated on the ways that “technologies at hand” could partially alleviate disruptions to research, and since then Clifford Lynch (CNI) has held a series of roundtables that included discussion of relevant support services and the unique challenges faced by faculty in particular disciplines. Evidence has begun to emerge on the disparities between men and women publishing during the pandemic. However, very little has been published to date on how the full spectrum of research activities continued or was disrupted during the spring term.

This was a topic we explored, albeit at the institutional level, through our COVID-19 Faculty Survey. Rapidly developed and then fielded at five institutions in May and June, the survey was designed to help higher education institutions gain insight on the experiences of their faculty in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the survey covered virtual instruction practices, institutional communications, and general challenges around shifting to remote work, several questions focused particularly on faculty as researchers and the challenges that they are facing in accessing and producing scholarship. We share this initial review of findings to help shed some light on faculty experiences with conducting research during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings also raise further questions about what these practices will look like in a post-pandemic future.

Overall, faculty reported that their research was disrupted. Roughly three-fourths of faculty members found that they were not able to work on research projects to the extent that they had planned. Given the extent to which faculty had to rapidly move their classes online while dealing with a slew of other professional and personal challenges, it is not surprising that research productivity declined to this extent. Indeed, approximately half of facultyand a similar share of students, for that matterindicated that they found it difficult to manage their time after the transition to remote work. It is notable, however, that roughly one in ten faculty indicated that they conducted new research related to the pandemic over the spring term.

Discovering and accessing resources

Intuitively, it was most difficult for faculty to access books and scholarly monographs, compared to other types of scholarship like journal articles, during the spring term. Many academic libraries closed their physical locations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thus limiting or revoking faculty’s ability to acquire and circulate print materials, though many did provide emergency access to these materials electronically. Faculty, as our prior research has shown, prefer print resources for long-form reading activities such as reading an entire section of a monograph. Will these preferences shift over time, more permanently, given how electronic resources were opened up earlier this year?

Conducting research

Faculty members largely indicated that they did not work on a variety of data collection and analysis activities during the spring term. They found it particularly difficult to actively collect qualitative data (such as interview or focus group transcripts, field notes, text, documents, images, video, audio, open-ended survey responses, etc.), collect and/or maintain scientific data (such as slides, biological specimens, samples, etc.), and obtain laboratory supplies. Conversely, roughly half of faculty found it easy to access and analyze pre-existing data, suggesting that if data were already gathered prior to the move to remote work, faculty were in a much better position for moving forward with their research. This can only last so long, as there is a declining set of “fresh” data still available for analysis. Might the pandemic instead cause researchers to more often share and re-use data from other researchers, given the limitations that individuals are facing in collecting their own data? 

Publishing research

Across the board, we see a significant decrease in the production of research publications and products. About half of faculty members decreased work on a variety of research outputsfrom blog posts to peer-reviewed journal articlesreinforcing that their publishing output has dramatically decreased overall. Men and women have been disproportionately affected; for many outputs, women were about 10 percentage points more likely than men to have decreased work. And, faculty in particular fields will certainly be affected more than others given differences in types of resources and data required for publication. How will colleges and universities continue to modify their tenure and promotion requirements accordingly to accommodate these massive disruptions? 

As institutions make preparations for the fall while still navigating the ongoing pandemic, we continue to look for ways in which we might help to support both faculty and students. We will soon be announcing some broad-brush research on the scientific and scholarly research enterprise. And, next week, we will release new survey instruments focusing on student and faculty experiences during the fall 2020 term. Participating institutions will have the ability to examine faculty responses not only in the aggregate but also by rank, field, gender, and other demographic variables. If you have any questions regarding participation, please use the form below to receive more information.

COVID-19 surveys for the 2020/21 academic year