Researching Internet- Based Populations: Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Survey Research, Online Questionnaire Authoring Software Packages, and Web Survey Services - Wright - 2. Journal of Computer- Mediated Communication. Introduction. The past decade has seen a tremendous increase in internet use and computer- mediated communication (Fox, Rainie, Larsen, Horrigan, Lenhart, Spooner, & Carter, 2. Horrigan, 2. 00. 1; Nie & Erbring, 2. Nie, Hillygus, & Erbring, 2. As an increasing amount of communicative activity takes place through this new medium, there has likewise been a significant increase in primary research on virtual communities, online relationships, and a variety of other aspects of computer- mediated communication (Flaherty, Pearce, & Rubin, 1. Matheson, 1. 99. 1; Nonnecke, Preece, Andrews, & Voutour, 2.
Preece, 1. 99. 9; Preece & Ghozati, 2. Walther, 1. 99. 6; Walther & Boyd, 2. Wood & Smith, 2. Wright, 2. 00. 0a, 2.
Studies of online populations have led to an increase in the use of online surveys, presenting scholars with new challenges in terms of applying traditional survey research methods to the study of online behavior and Internet use (Andrews, Nonnecke, & Preece, 2. Bachmann & Elfrink, 1. Stanton, 1. 99. 8; Witmer, Colman, & Katzman, 1.
Yun & Trumbo, 2. The technology for online survey research is young and evolving. Until recently, creating and conducting an online survey was a time- consuming task requiring familiarity with web authoring programs, HTML code, and scripting programs. Today, survey authoring software packages and online survey services make online survey research much easier and faster. Yet many researchers in different disciplines may be unaware of the advantages and disadvantages associated with conducting survey research online. Advantages include access to individuals in distant locations, the ability to reach difficult to contact participants, and the convenience of having automated data collection, which reduces researcher time and effort.
Disadvantages of online survey research include uncertainty over the validity of the data and sampling issues, and concerns surrounding the design, implementation, and evaluation of an online survey. This article considers and evaluates the advantages and disadvantages related to conducting online surveys identified in previous research. In addition, it reviews the current state of available web survey software packages and services, various features of these software packages and services, and their advantages and limitations. The purpose of the article is to provide an overview of issues and resources in order to assist researchers in determining if they would benefit from using online surveys, and to guide them in the selection and use of online survey techniques. To facilitate these goals, which are both methodological and applied, the author draws on published research dealing with online survey methods, as well as his experience conducting more than 1. Advantages of Online Survey Research. Researchers in a variety of disciplines may find the Internet a fruitful area for conducting survey research.
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As the cost of computer hardware and software continues to decrease, and the popularity of the Internet increases, more segments of society are using the Internet for communication and information (Fox et al., 2. Nie et al., 2. 00. Thousands of groups and organizations have moved online, many of them aggressively promoting their presence through the use of search engines, email lists, and banner advertisements.
These organizations not only offer information to consumers, they also present opportunities for researchers to access a variety of populations who are affiliated with these groups. Communication researchers may find the Internet an especially rich domain for conducting survey research. Virtual communities have flourished online, and hundreds of thousands of people regularly participate in discussions about almost every conceivable issue and interest (Horrigan, 2. Wellman, 1. 99. 7; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2.
Areas as diverse as interpersonal (Parks & Floyd, 1. Tidwell & Walther, 2. Wright, 2. 00. 4), group (Hollingshead, Mc. Grath, & O'Connor, 1. Hobman, Bordia, Irmer, & Chang, 2. Ahuja & Carley, 1.
Rice & Katz, 2. Wright, 2. 00. 0a), and mass communication (Flaherty et al.,1. Flanagin & Metzger, 2. Access to Unique Populations. One advantage of online survey research is that it takes advantage of the ability of the Internet to provide access to groups and individuals who would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach through other channels (Garton, Haythornthwaite, & Wellman, 1. Wellman, 1. 99. 7).
In many cases, communities and groups exist only in cyberspace. For example, it would be difficult to find a large, concentrated group of people conducting face- to- face discussions of topics such as cyber- stalking, online stock trading, and the pros and cons of virtual dating. While people certainly discuss such issues among friends, family members, and co- workers, few meet face- to- face in large groups to discuss them. One advantage of virtual communities as sites for research is that they offer a mechanism through which a researcher can gain access to people who share specific interests, attitudes, beliefs, and values regarding an issue, problem, or activity. For example, researchers can find a concentrated number of older individuals who use computers on the Internet- based community Senior.
Net (Furlong, 1. 98. Wright, 2. 00. 0a, 2.
In contrast, with traditional survey research methods it may be more difficult to reach a large number of demographically- similar older people who are interested in computers. Another example is the case of individuals with diseases or conditions, such as HIV, eating disorders, and physical disabilities. Individuals with these conditions and diseases are often difficult to reach because they are stigmatized offline. Health communication researchers have been able to go online to study these populations, including examining how features of the computer medium help people cope with the social stigma of their condition (Braithwaite, Waldron, & Finn, 1. Wright, 2. 00. 0b).
More generally, the Internet enables communication among people who may be hesitant to meet face- to- face. For example, individuals with unpopular political views may hesitate to express themselves openly, and groups of individuals such as Arab- Americans may feel uncomfortable talking about anti- Arab sentiment in public places (Muhtaseb, 2. These individuals and groups often can be reached on the Internet in larger numbers than would be possible using face- to- face research methods.
Time. A second advantage is that Internet- based survey research may save time for researchers. As already noted, online surveys allow a researcher to reach thousands of people with common characteristics in a short amount of time, despite possibly being separated by great geographic distances (Bachmann & Elfrink, 1.
Garton et al., 2. Taylor, 2. 00. 0; Yun & Trumbo, 2. A researcher interested in surveying hard- to- reach populations can quickly gain access to large numbers of such individuals by posting invitations to participate to newsgroups, chat rooms, and message board communities. In the face- to- face research environment, it would take considerably longer- if it were possible at all- to find an equivalent number of people with specific attributes, interests, and attitudes in one location. Online surveys may also save time by allowing researchers to collect data while they work on other tasks (Llieva, Baron, & Healey, 2.
Once an invitation to participate in a survey is posted to the website of a community of interest, emailed to people through a listserv service, or distributed through an online survey research service, researchers may collect data while working on other projects (Andrews et al., 2. Responses to online surveys can be transmitted to the researcher immediately via email, or posted to an HTML document or database file. This allows researchers to conduct preliminary analyses on collected data while waiting for the desired number of responses to accumulate (Llieva et al., 2. First generation online survey researchers often used email- based surveys, which involved creating online survey forms using word processing software, and later used products such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver. Researchers had to “cut and paste” responses from the email responses into statistical software programs such as SAS and SPSS.
More recently, online survey creation software packages provide a variety of templates to create and implement online surveys more easily, as well as to export data to statistical software packages. Moreover, a number of online survey services provide survey design assistance, generate samples, and analyze and interpret data. Some of the newer software packages and web- based services are detailed below.
Cost. Online survey researchers can also save money by moving to an electronic medium from a paper format (Bachmann & Elfrink, 1. Couper, 2. 00. 0; Llieva et al., 2. Yun & Trumbo, 2. Paper surveys tend to be costly, even when using a relatively small sample, and the costs of a traditional large- scale survey using mailed questionnaires can be enormous. The use of online surveys circumvents this problem by eliminating the need for paper and other costs, such as those incurred through postage, printing, and data entry (Llieva et al., 2. Watt, 1. 99. 9; Witmer et al., 1.
Similarly, conducting online interviews, either by email, or in a synchronous “chat” format, offers cost savings advantages. Costs for recording equipment, travel, and the telephone can be eliminated. In addition, transcription costs can be avoided since online responses are automatically documented.