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RESEARCH BRIEF: Ghosting in the realm of research: The realities of conducting social science research in the digital age

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Published onMay 03, 2024
RESEARCH BRIEF: Ghosting in the realm of research: The realities of conducting social science research in the digital age


Social science research does not occur in a vacuum. Competing for time and attention is the norm in a society that has become more isolated. Because of this, the effects of ghosting are prevalent everywhere. As social scientists, we are not immune to ghosting or its effects. In this research brief, two junior faculty members discuss their efforts to overcome ghosting at every level of the research process and its impact on hiring student workers, knowledge production, and meeting grant funding requirements. Lastly, the authors offer suggestions for overcoming the effects of ghosting and its effect on the challenges of conducting exploratory qualitative “grassroots'' research.

Keywords: Ghosting, research, social science, data

Setbacks and challenges are par for the course when engaging in any type of research and are well-documented across empirical studies (Shreffler & Heucker, 2023). Researchers are often plagued by lengthy but necessary IRB approval processes and methodological roadblocks, among other challenges. As we know, research processes are far from immune to social context. The digital age has undoubtedly changed research and knowledge production. As terms like “ghosting” become a hot topic for discussion regarding social norms, the process of conducting research simultaneously has become enmeshed in this discussion. The current piece is born out of the experiences of a recent research study conducted by two junior faculty members in the social sciences at teaching institutions. The piece outlines the impact of “ghosting” at all stages of the research process and what this means for the state of research overall as we move into the future. Ghosting is ending a relationship by stopping communication without explanation (Leckfor et al., 2023). Research has shown that the act of ghosting can have a negative psychological impact on the receiver of ghosting, including a hit to one’s self-image and sense of belonging (Leckfor et al., 2023; Navarro et al., 2020). While we often refer to ghosting when it comes to more informal social relationships (e.g., dating, friendships), this type of behavior not only exists but has become amplified in the research world. Forms of ghosting range from not showing up to interviews and focus groups or simply ceasing ties with all forms of communication. This can be particularly detrimental to the research or intended research goals and researcher morale and accountability. This research brief will address the impact of ghosting at various stages of the research process and what it means for future knowledge production and advancement in the field.

The Research Process and Ghosting

We all know that the research endeavor, particularly those processes involving human participants, does not exist in a vacuum. It is well established that the relationships and perceptions between the researcher and participants in a study can immensely impact the production of research results and the overall process (Bourke, 2014). The researcher’s reflexivity, positionality, and constant self-surveillance of the researcher are emphasized, particularly when engaging in qualitative work (Bourke, 2014). The criminological study, which focused on exploring social support for elderly people leaving prison in New Jersey, began with building a database of organizations across the state that either 1) served people over the age of 50 in some capacity (eg. senior centers, department of aging services) and 2) provided reentry services to people who were recently released from prison. We were fortunate enough to have an undergraduate research assistant do a data scrape of “all” organizations that could be found on the internet serving these functions. During several meetings, we had conversations regarding the composition of our sample and the literature review conducted by the research assistant on the topic at hand. Ultimately, we compiled a sizable database and conducted outreach to over 400 organizations across New Jersey.

Recruitment and Ghosting

The first encounter with ghosting in the research realm came during the study's recruitment and outreach phase. Outreach was conducted by mail and email using a modified Dillman method (Hoddinott & Bass, 1986). An introductory letter was sent with a QR code to access our survey and a copy of a white paper created by the authors outlining the research problem and the need for community-based solutions to support older people leaving prison. Business cards were enclosed, a copy of the IRB report was included, and respondents were offered financial incentives for participation. When a response was not received from our original request, we followed up with two postcards spaced two weeks apart. This is where we encountered our first challenge with incorrect addresses, returned mail, and “undeliverable addresses.” Ultimately, 6.2% (n=25) of mailings were returned because of incorrect information on their websites and Google profiles.

Several efforts were made after employing the modified Dillman method. We then emailed organizations with a publicly listed email address. Weekly emails were sent when an email address was provided online. We emailed the senior staff members at each organization to introduce ourselves and our study, assure them that we were, in fact, real people, and offered to answer any questions they might have. This, too, was not foolproof. Incorrect or lack of email addresses also stifled our endeavors to establish contact and follow up on pre-existing efforts to encourage participation in our study. Ultimately, our extensive efforts led to a 7% (n=28) response rate over a four-month data collection period, regardless of what the Dillman Total Design Survey Method “guarantees” (Hoddinott & Bass, 1986).

After the survey, there was an option to explore the topic further by offering the option to connect with other organizations interested in supporting older people leaving prison. Based on the responses to this question, we decided conducting focus groups to understand participants’ backgrounds and experiences working with older people leaving prison would be a good idea. Of the 28 survey respondents, 17 were interested in working with parole or other organizations to support older people leaving prison. Ultimately, we decided to invite everyone (n=28) who had completed a survey to participate in the focus groups. Two library multi-purpose rooms were booked in the northern and southern parts of the state in preparation for in-person focus group meetings. Digital invites were sent, promising further compensation for participation. The research team set the process in motion, starting with invitations that provided the respondents with potential dates for participation. The researchers also secured designated spaces with a deposit, and additional recording equipment was purchased out of pocket in preparation for the meeting. Sadly, only one respondent agreed to an in-person focus group, and both locations had to be canceled. A deposit for one of the library locations was not refundable, so money was ultimately lost out of the researcher’s pocket. This is especially troubling because it is impossible to plan without incurring some liability, not to mention disappointment, and while we are well past the point of COVID lockdowns, one would think showing up in person would be a welcome change.

Unwilling to give up, we then tried to conduct virtual focus groups. A date was scheduled, and invites were sent again with the hopes of people showing up. Nine people agreed to log on to a Zoom-based focus group. When we logged on, no one else did. Ghosted again. At this point, some serious soul-searching occurred. This falls in line with the extant research that shows the mental health impact of ghosting and its relationship to other adverse mental health outcomes (Navarro et al., 2020). Ghosting has also been linked to a need to belong and can impact self-perception (Pancani et al., 2021). It is an understatement to say that researchers are not immune to this feeling. We decided to give it one last shot with the people who agreed to the initial Zoom meeting. Fortunately, at this point, people logged on. We were able to have two mini-focus groups with three attendees each. While this may be considered a small victory, the information provided was important to drawing conclusions and actionable items from our research. We believe this information is valuable and will be the impetus for change in supporting a vulnerable and growing sector of the correctional population. Sadly, a critical stakeholder in the elderly reentry conversation agreed to attend and never showed up, even though one of the authors had a pre-established relationship with the organization.

While there were multiple challenges executing the study (e.g. the recruitment and data collection phases), ghosting found its way into our internal implementation process; in other words, we were experiencing ghosting “behind the scenes.” Our grant allowed us to hire a research assistant, but finding an assistant interested after the work began or for any length of time was elusive. Student candidates would show interest, go through a lengthy hiring process, and quickly lose interest leading to great frustration and disappointment. We believed providing students with a remote working option seemed like a great tool for flexibility and retention. Work duties included finding suitable articles for literature reviews, doing annotated bibliographies, performing a data scrape of the internet, and allowing them to join the focus groups. However, employment with our three student workers lasted from three weeks to three months. One of the authors had multiple conversations and sent multiple emails with one research assistant, practically begging (spamming) them to log their hours so the grant could be closed, but to no avail. This lack of interest is disheartening, given that we often hope our students will be interested, motivated, and ambitious, especially those looking to work in the field. This was certainly the case at the interview stage but rapidly declined in the face of “real work.”

Combatting Ghosting: Suggestions Moving Forward

In the face of such challenges due to emerging social norms like ghosting, commiserating is not the most productive step if we want to keep engaging in and producing meaningful research and advancing our fields. We, as social science researchers, must consider how to move forward into uncharted territory. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars have begun to pose some recommendations and “food for thought” as the landscape of social science research changes (Prommegger et al., 2021). These recommendations include approaching your research project with the outlook that the context of the research may change, documenting changes in the context concerning data collection, and not being afraid of ad-hoc methodology when all else fails; in other words, sometimes it may be acceptable to “go rogue” (Prommegger et al., 2021). Specifically, some key considerations from our study include varying communication methods in recruitment, revisiting the importance of snowball sampling, and, above all else, researcher persistence.

Vary Methods of Communication

At the risk of watering down your methodology, it is important to be dynamic to most efficiently deal with the challenges researchers confront while doing grassroots, exploratory research. Conducting research during the COVID-19 pandemic forced all researchers to alter their data collection methods, and the changing social context encourages us to have contingency plans for future research (Prommegger et al., 2021). Using as many forms of contact as possible allows you to consider your audience at all vantage points and potentially obtain the sample characteristics most desirable for the study. Not everyone appreciates the old, more traditional communication methods such as letters and postcards. While this might be appropriate for an older audience, or those who prefer paper to digital, this might not connect with a younger generation of contacts. Conversely, links to websites, YouTube commercials, and QR codes are necessary to convey a digital profile and to gain legitimacy in modern society. Therefore, documenting your data collection methods and providing context is necessary to explain and further strengthen your findings (Prommegger et al., 2021).

The Value of Snowball Sampling

When data collection hits a wall, never underestimate the value of snowball sampling. We started asking for referrals once we realized survey responses were less robust than we would have liked. Snowball sampling is a commonly used qualitative research method to use people’s existing contacts to increase the response rate and access populations that are difficult to reach (Barker, Scott & Geddes, 2019). In our experience, one respondent could not complete our survey due to policy restrictions provided by her organization, but her referral led to four survey responses. While this research method is often unnecessarily criticized for lacking “generalizability,” we aimed for a purposive non-probability sample as part of an exploratory analysis of community-based support for older people leaving prison. Therefore, purposive sampling was an appropriate research method for this study (Marshall, 1996).

Researcher Persistence and Expectations

While to say that this new social context poses steep challenges would be an understatement, above all else, persistence as a researcher is key. The ability to be persistent is paramount at all stages of the research process, particularly the outreach. As referenced throughout the paper, we employed the Dillman method (Hoddinott & Bass, 1986) in our methodology to optimize outreach. We kept reaching out to our target audience in multiple ways and various mediums (e.g., email, YouTube commercials, postcards, and in-person site visits). While it felt like the outreach was leading us nowhere at certain points of the research process, we did not give up. Researcher persistence was not only applied in the outreach process, but as we became more dynamic in our methodologies, we had to ensure that we secured the appropriate permissions through the Institutional Review Board. This process involved a great deal of patience as we waited for approvals and modified various IRB documents, such as instrumentation.

Implications of Ghosting: Moving Forward

While it may be simple to just chalk this up to the changing ways of the world and social context, social scientists must consider how these changes in communication and technology impact research and knowledge production. As we know, research findings can help us draw attention to emerging social problems and possible solutions. Furthermore, in most cases, data is needed to revise policy and can have major implications for funding. Significantly low response rates and consistent no-shows can delay or completely alter the course of research for many researchers, leading to less data and less research overall. In addition to delays in the research process itself and a potential lack of data, there is also a risk of selection bias and its impact on study results due to a diminished, less representative sample size. This can pose challenges beyond knowledge production and awareness as philanthropic or government entities with specific stipulations and timelines for data collection fund many projects. Additionally, it is no secret that junior faculty members or early-career scholars often rely on seeking grant funding and the production of publications to advance in rank or earn tenure (Carter et al., 2021; Schimanski & Alperin, 2018). The inability to collect data due to these challenges can make it more difficult for people to collect the data they need to achieve career milestones and, most importantly, contribute to their respective fields meaningfully. According to Stone’s (2011) model of the polis, community is necessary for solving problems. Public policy and problem-solving include collective will and effort (Stone, 2011). We must consider how this lack of engagement and participant commitment can impact exploratory qualitative research and research-based policy change, specifically, the general unwillingness to cooperate for the greater good of the populations that will benefit the most.


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Contributor Bios

Dr. Lena Campagna is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Caldwell University. She earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts Boston, with a concentration in communities and crime. Her research interests include victimology and reentry research. Her solo and co-authored research has been published in Law and Society Review, Journal of Criminal Justice Education, American Indian Research and Culture Journal, and International Review of Victimology

Angela S. Murolo, PhD is an Assistant Professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. Her dissertation investigated older people’s experiences on parole and parole officer’s views on working with them. She has written several articles on correctional responses to geriatric inmates, the increasingly older prison population, and geriatric parole.

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