The combination of a replication crisis, the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and recent technological advances, have accelerated the on-going transition of research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience to the online realm. When participants cannot be tested in-person, data of acceptable quality can still be collected online. While online research offers many advantages, numerous pitfalls may hinder researchers in addressing their questions appropriately, potentially resulting in unusable data and misleading conclusions. Here, we present an overview of the costs and benefits of conducting online studies in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, coupled with detailed best practice suggestions that span the range from initial study design to the final interpretation of data. These suggestions offer a critical look at issues regarding recruitment of typical and (sub)clinical samples, their comparison, and the importance of context-dependency in each part of a study. We illustrate our suggestions by means of a fictional online study, applicable to traditional paradigms such as research on working memory with a control and treatment group.
As the transition to online research proves difficult to achieve based on a simple blueprint, the presented suggestions aim to provide a starting point. They are intended to guide one’s critical thinking about xperimental design considerations without claiming to be all-encompassing. Crucial questions as one begins to design any online study are: What is the goal of my study, is the online delivery method appropriate and sufficient, and are all the measures needed to answer my research question accurately collectable online? It is also important to consider worst-case scenarios with regards to the experimental design, participants, and technology, and to think of ways to mitigate these issues beforehand. Our fictional study illustrates these suggestions in practice. Often the benefits outweigh the costs, as the future of research is heading towards technological innovation, and the COVID-19 pandemic offered many a first opportunity at trying to leverage the benefits of online research. As increased environmental changes and biological hazards may result in an uncertain future with regards to global pandemics, making the transition to online experimentation sooner rather than later, could prove to be more advantageous for research teams in many different settings and research fields in the long run. Thus, whether more researchers adopt this method should simply be a matter of time. The key factor is how it is being done.