As I write, the Covid-19 pandemic is ramping up in many countries. So is the response by academic authors. In 2015 Gaillard and Gomez published an interesting paper on the "disaster research gold rush". It was inspired by some thoughts expressed in 1967 by eminent sociologists of disaster on problems associated with researching transient events (Dynes et al. 1967). In the life-cycle of a disaster, when is it appropriate to do such research?
Disasters give rise to many imperatives. They also generate 'perishable' data that, if they are not collected, will disappear without trace. By common consent, disaster researchers rarely go to events in the early stage of the crisis. To interrupt vital life-saving efforts with social surveys or demands for data would be unconscionable. However, it is a different matter if the researcher can work without visiting the site, putting a foot in the door of the emergency room or stumbling across the path of rescuers.
I am the editor-in-chief of a large international academic journal. The Covid-19 gold rush has already begun. The trickle of papers threatens to turn into a raging torrent, and the disaster is not yet half way through the crisis phase. This points to a conflict. On the positive side, academics wish to throw light on the problems caused by Covid-19, suggest solutions and launch valuable new initiatives. They also wish to capture experience and preserve it as evidence on which to base future policies and plans. On the negative side, there seems to be an urge to be the first in the field with a paper, as if this were are race to be won.
Authors can write in haste and repent at their leisure: editors can rue the day. Much of what is written will need to be reconsidered in the light of the outcome of the pandemic, which is months away, and the post-event debate that follows it. I admit that this is equally true of the present blog, but my criticism is not aimed at those who express an opinion. Debate is healthy, even when there is a need for national and international solidarity. However, any analysis based on half the story is likely to be suspect.
A positive side of the urge to publish is the desire to contribute to the debate before it lapses because attention is diverted to other issues. However, there is a prevailing question about how soon in the sequence of a disaster is it appropriate to take stock? This depends on how easy it is for earlier conclusions to be invalidated by the progress of events. The question is then, to what extent is this predictable or likely to create exigencies that cannot be included in the present analysis?
The Covid-19 pandemic is distinguished by high levels of uncertainty in many of the tenets that anchor the scenario: infection rates, geographical spread, case-fatality rates, government policies and their impacts, public discipline or indiscipline in the face of emergency measures, and repercussions on the economy and people's livelihoods. These factors militate against an over-hasty academic response. So when you read academic papers written in the thick of Covid-19, caveat lector!
Dynes, R.R., J.E. Haas and E.L. Quarantelli 1967. Administrative, methodological, and theoretical problems of disaster research. Indian Sociological Bulletin 4: 215-227.
Gaillard, J-C. and C. Gomez 2015. Post-disaster research: is there gold worth the rush? Jàmbá: Journal of Disaster Risk Studies 7(1), Article no. 120, 1-6.