II: Exploring the nuances of the diary research process

Researcher-participant ‘win-win’ in diary research: Participant recruitment and retention in a longitudinal diary-interview study on employability management

Xuemeng Cao


Solicited diaries, defined as ‘an account produced specifically at the researcher’s request, by an informant or informants’ (Bell, 1998, p. 72), have been acknowledged to be an effective method facilitating a researcher (or a research group) to explore the same group of people across time and across contexts (Breakwell, 2006; Milligan, Bingley & Gatrell, 2005). However solicited diaries have also been argued to be a method that carries a considerable risk of preventing people from signing up to participate, considering the associated commitment of the greater time and effort involved in providing data than many other research methods (Bedwell, McGowan & Lavender, 2012). Moreover, diary' research studies, longitudinal ones in particular, require participants to produce diary data on a regular basis according to the researchers’ guidelines, which can easily result in respondent fatigue and participant attrition (Okami, 2012). Higher education (HE) research is not an exception in being faced with these methodological concerns when the diary method is adopted. Although the players in the HE domain usually have sufficient literacy to complete diary entries, they may feel overburdened when participating in this type of research, given that they are already busy with their own work. This chapter explores the efforts researchers could make to succeed in recruiting and maintaining participants during longitudinal diary’ research studies. Previous research has highlighted participant recruitment and retention as the main challenges to undertaking diary' research (Toms & Duff, 2002); few articles, however, have specifically focused on this topic, which may partly’ due to the paucity’ of methodological literature on the diary' method (Bartlett & Milligan, 2015; Hyers 2018; Cao & Henderson, 2020). Furthermore, articles presenting the empirical results of diary’ studies tend not to elaborate on the process of sampling and participant maintenance. This chapter, as such, contributes to developing the existing knowledge of this method. The principal aim of this chapter is to articulate the key issues in relation to working with participants at every’ stage of longitudinal diary' data collection in order to provide a reference for researchers’ practices in conducting diary’ research studies.

The study that this chapter is based on embraced a nine-month diary element together with two rounds of interviews, which constituted an ‘interview-diary-interview’ format. The research study explored the employability management of Chinese international students who were enrolled on social sciences taught Master’s programmes in a UK university over one academic year (2017/18). The challenges that existed were in recruiting a sufficient number of participants within a limited timeframe and, of course, retaining them while they were otherwise engaged in an intensive (and overseas) learning effort. Successfully recruiting 33 participants within one month and losing only one during the entire year of research, this chapter highlights the significance of a participant-friendly research design and the supportive role of the researcher in cooperating with participants during diary’ research. In this chapter, following a literature review on how participant recruitment and retention in diary research has hitherto been investigated, the empirical study is introduced. The chapter then elaborates on the specific practices that the researcher engaged in regarding researcher-participant cooperation in the research process, and concludes with suggested further work related to this topic. The core argument is that desirable results of participant recruitment and retention can be achieved via longitudinal diary studies in HE area by taking advantage of the features of the HE context, making a participant-friendly’ research design and establishing a participant-researcher rapport. Diary' researchers in HE and beyond are suggested to keep participants’ circumstances and needs in mind while designing and undertaking diary’ research so as to achieve a ‘win-win’ for both researcher(s) and participants in the research cooperation.

Participant recruitment and retention in diary research

Participant recruitment and retention are significant challenges to any' diary' research (Toms & Duff, 2002). People with physical disabilities (e.g. visual impairment) or low literacy’ may be excluded from diary research (Meth, 2003), though taking other formats of diaries such as photographs, audio and video (digital abilities are required for these types of diary' tasks) could make it more inclusive to some extent. Diary’ research studies employing any' tools demand that participants dedicate a certain time and vigour to data provision; longitudinal studies that adopt a qualitative analysis purpose are extremely' onerous, and are more likely to cause respondent fatigue, and lead to incomplete diaries and significant participant attrition (Dwyer et al., 2013; Eidse & Turner, 2014; Scott, Green & Cashmore, 2012). Moreover, diary' keeping, which is culturally' regarded as intimate and confessional behaviour (Hyers, 2018), may' make people feel awkward when writing diary' entries as they' have a clear awareness that their narratives will be read and evaluated.

Using diary' method in HE research, the most apparent feasibility is that research objects usually have the desired literacy to complete diary' tasks, notwithstanding the ability of written expression varies from person to person even in the senior intellectual group. However, it could be difficult for diary’ research studies with a high associated commitment to recruit and retain people in the HE area who are already busy with their own work (Hyers et al., 2012; Scott, Green & Cashmore, 2012), compared to those targeted at elderly people or patients who may enjoy more free time. The diary method can facilitate participant recruitment in HE research since reflective writing has been demonstrated to be an effective means of academic development (Vinjamuri, Warde & Kolb, 2017; Wallin & Adawi, 2018), and indeed participants are sometimes interested in the novelty of under-used diary' formats such as audio diaries (Worth 2009). Nonetheless, the diary method may rule people out of HE research due to ethical concerns, that is, their diary entries would be with a teacher/colleague-as-reader (Cao & Henderson, 2020).

Few articles have specifically explored the participant recruitment and retention practices in diary' research, which is surprising considering that the diary method is so highly participant-dependent. Alongside a paucity of methodologically oriented literature on the diary method itself, a potential reason for the associated lack of discussion on participant engagement is that many diary studies 1 have accessed either involved a small sample size (e.g. five participants in Furman, Coyne & Negi, 2008; ten participants in Jacelon and Imperio, 2005; eight participants in Lewis, Sligo & Massey, 2005) and/or lasted for only a short duration of data collection (e.g. one week in Beckers, van der Voordt & Dewulf, 2016; ten days in Bedwell, McGowan & Lavender, 2012; one week in Lewis, Sligo & Massey, 2005), which removed the participant-related concerns. The difficulty' of recruiting participants for diary' research can also be mediated when it is conducted as a part of or a follow-up to a larger research project (e.g. Dietrich, Kracke & Nurmi, 2011; Kaur, Saukko & Lumsden, 2018; Martinez-Vargas, Walker & Mkwananzi, 2019) which already' had a participant pool. Otherwise, considerable effort is needed from researchers to achieve their desired sample size for diary studies.

The previous literature reflected the fact that researchers tended to use a variety' of methods to expose their research to the target population. For example, Bates (2013) advertised her diary' research via websites, email lists and personal contacts; Heng (2017) disseminated her study' through international students’ offices, friends, social media websites, flyers, and bulletin board postings. Almost no research rejected volunteering diarists as long as they' met the criteria of being involved in the sample group, with snowball sampling employed by' many such studies (e.g. Heng, 2017; Reid, Hunter & Sutton, 2011) to enlarge sample sizes. Moreover, researchers usually introduced the diary' tasks at the data collection stage prior to the diary' research (e.g. pre-diary interviews in Eidse & Turner, 2014; also in Jacelon & Imperio, 2005) or specifically' conducted pre-diary' events (e.g. kick-off sessions in Beckers, van der Voordt & Dewulf, 2016; private face-to-face meetings in Kaur, Saukko & Lumsden, 2018) to explain the diary' method and sometimes give diary-keeping training (Martinez-Vargas, Walker & Mkwananzi, 2019; Reynolds, Robles & Repetti, 2016; Chapter 4, this volume) in order to make the diary' tasks clear to participants, including how to use diary-keeping tools, and how much effort they may' need to contribute.

Exploring the participant recruitment of diary research in HE studies, a unique phenomenon is that researchers embedded diary research into the curricula they delivered as teachers, with some of them allowing students to engage in this voluntarily (Chen et al., 2016), while others made diary-keeping a compulsory' part of the module (Travers, 2011). Curriculum-conjunct diary' research suffered little difficulty' in participant recruitment, but this challenge is still met by' many HE researchers where participation is more optional in nature.

Comparing to the participant recruitment process which is sometimes detailed by researchers in the sampling section of articles, researchers’ efforts regarding participant retention were less elaborated upon in the previous literature, except for some longitudinal diary research that emphasised the significance of establishing trust and rapport with participants by pre-diary visits and revisits during data collection (Eidse & Turner, 2014; Lewis, Sligo & Massey, 2005; Thomas, 2007), making timely' responses to participants’ inquiries (Boz & Okumus, 2017; Eidse and Turner, 2014), and giving regular feedback to participants’ diary’ works (Monrouxe, 2009; Travers, 2011). However, it is noteworthy' that considerations of participant retention are always implied in diary research design. For instance, diary' keeping tools were designed to be as simple as possible to shorten the completion time (Hy'ers et al., 2012; Kenten, 2010); the duration of diary' keeping was minimised under the premise of ensuring the sufficiency of the data (Jacelon & Imperio, 2005); and event-contingent approaches have been used to replace everyday diary' keeping (Day & Thatcher, 2009) to reduce the burden on the participants.

The above participant retention strategies used by diary' studies in general can also be found in the HE area. An interesting point to be noted is that some HE researchers (Martinez-Vargas, Walker & Mkwananzi, 2019; Schmitz & Wiese, 2006) issued a certificate to participants who completed diary' research to attract and maintain participants, which is different to others (e.g. Eidse & Turner, 2014; Reynolds, Robles & Repetti, 2016; Swim et al., 2003) who used monetary' incentives, though the effectiveness of incentives for encouraging the participation of qualitative research has been criticised (Head, 2009).

In relation to participant recruitment and retention strategies, another issue worth discussing is the participant-researcher relationship in diary studies, longitudinal ones in particular, considering researchers’ insider roles during the research process. Previous discussions (e.g. Filep et al., 2018; Heller et al., 2011; Monrouxe, 2009) focused more on how the positionality' of the researchers affected the rigour of diary' data, which is particularly significant. However, few articles have explored how the participant-researcher relationship worked in terms of participant engagement in diary research, except that of Eidse and Turner’s (2014, p. 245) diary research on Vietnamese street vendors which reflected that their participants felt ‘obliged’ to engage in the research, even though the diary' work was ‘too tiring and difficult’ for them because the rapport had been cultivated between the participants and researchers (and the research assistant).

Based on my' literature review, 1 did not find a diary' study in the HE domain that elaborated upon the impact of researcher’s role(s) in participant engagement, which effectively presents a gap to fill, especially when some diary research was conducted by a researcher who had no existing power relationship with the participants.

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