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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Advantages and disadvantages of online questionnaires

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Open/close headingSpeed and volume of data collection

Using online questionnaires enables the researcher to collect large volumes of data quickly and at low cost (Fleming and Bowden, 2009; Couper et. al., 2007). Harris (1997), for example, reports that most completed online surveys are returned within 48-72 hours, making turnaround incredibly fast compared to onsite methods. Data can also be analysed continuously and directly imported into statistical tools and databases, increasing the speed and accuracy of analysis. Also online questionnaires are usually easier and faster to update during the pilot phase and data can be collected continuously - independent of the time of day and day of week. It must, however, be noted that the time taken to prepare an online questionnaire can be substantial and will outweigh some of the time savings noted above. Also, a large volume of responses does not guarantee a good quality of responses.


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Open/close headingSavings in costs

Costs associated with online questionnaires can be substantially lower than those associated with onsite surveys. Paperwork, telephone, postage and printing costs can be cut. Travel costs may be reduced and time may be saved by not having to travel to fieldwork sites. No costs are incurred for organising or hiring an interview venue. Software used to conduct online questionnaires is now often free, and savings may also be made on the costs associated with importing data for analysis. But it must be remembered that indirect costs can be passed to the participants, and this raises ethical issues. For example, respondents usually bear the costs of internet connection time. Additionally, financial benefits only accrue to researchers with institutional support in terms of computer equipment, software literacy training costs, internet connection time and technical support.


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Open/close headingFlexible design

It is generally agreed that online questionnaires can provide a superior questionnaire interface compared to onsite surveys, as it is possible to make them more user friendly and attractive, thus encouraging higher response rates. Each questionnaire can be tailored to individual respondents with different questions being offered to different individuals. Questions can also be ordered randomly and a dynamic interface can be provided with pop-up instructions and drop down boxes. Skip patterns may be built in for ease of navigation, and there is also scope for personalisation of the research experience through, for example, providing feedback or results (Joinson and Reips, 2007). Online questionnaires can also be included on a dedicated website which can be used as a platform to provide more information about the project, the researchers and the affiliated institution. Online questionnaires also enable multi-lingual formats and pre-populating data about respondents. They can also include prompts if the respondent skips a question and can include audiovisual stimuli. These issues provide an inherently flexible design strategy, which Zhang (1999) suggests may increase a respondent’s motivation to compete the questionnaire. The use of online questionnaires can also provide the researcher with the potential to track how respondants interact with the questionnaire. It is possible to analyse the requests made to the server hosting the questionnaire to measure the number of people opening a questionnaire, viewing particular pages and submitting responses or leaving the questionnaire without submitting. This can allow problems affecting response rates in particular sections of a questionnaire to be identified and dealt with.


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Open/close headingData accuracy

Responses from online questionnaires can also be automatically inserted into spreadsheets, databases or statistical packages, such as Microsoft Access and SPSS. This not only saves time and costs in the analysis phase but also ensures that data processing is automated, reducing human error in data entry and coding. Data can be automatically validated because if a data value is entered in an incorrect format, the web-based program can return an error message requesting the respondent to enter the data correctly and resubmit the questionnaire. This means that data entry errors are often low- there are no problems with interpreting handwriting, for example.


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Open/close headingAccess to research populations

Online questionnaires can be useful in providing direct access to research populations without the need of any 'cultural gatekeepers' who might restrict access to such groups. They also enable greater potential access to small specific population sub-groups, such as people with specific illnesses, family structures, particular ethnicities, as the potential population one can draw on is generally larger than that of most onsite surveys. Finally, online questionnaires can be useful for contacting socially and physically isolated groups.


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Open/close headingAnonymity

The anonymity provided by online questionnaires can also be helpful for some topics. Harris (1997), for example, suggests that interviewer bias is reduced or eliminated in online surveys. Pealer et al. (2001) also report that respondents are more likely to answer socially threatening questions in online questionnaires compared to onsite surveys or telephone interviews where interviewer effect and privacy issues may affect reliability (Braunsberger et. al., 2007). During self-administered online questionnaires, the tangible presence of the researcher is removed, so bodily presence (age, gender, ethnicity, hairstyle, clothes, accent) become invisible. It has been claimed that this can lead to online research becoming a 'great equaliser', with the researcher having less control over the research process and potentially becoming a 'participant researcher'. Other have argued that this is a utopian vision as it is also likely that while the 'lived body' is invisible during an online questionnaire, pre-interpreted meanings and unstated assumptions are clearly 'visible' in the creation of online questions because we do not leave the body, and all its material inequalities, behind when we enter cyberspace (see Sweet 2001). Additionally, the 'equaliser argument' glosses over the structural power hierarchies that enable researchers to set the agenda, ask the questions and benefit from the results of the survey process.


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Open/close headingRespondent acceptability

As online questionnaires are quick to complete, and can be completed at a time and place convenient to the respondent, they are often more popular than onsite surveys. Madge and O’Connor (2002), for example, used online questionnaires to research mothers of newborn babies. They concluded that online methods were particularly suitable for contacting this particular population group because onsite surveying was not feasible owing to physical and mental exhaustion of the mothers after childbirth and the constant demands of caring for a new baby. In this research project the use of online questionnaires enabled a 'community' (women with new-borns or young children) notoriously difficult to reach and hence habitually left out of research, to be contacted.


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Open/close headingSample bias

Perhaps the most questionable, and certainly the most commonly debated, aspect of online questionnaires is sample bias. There are enduring social and spatial divides in access and use of the internet which can induce sample biases to any online research. Also the researcher has less control over the sample population and so has no way of discerning if there are several respondents at one computer address or if one respondent is completing a questionnaire from a variety of computers. Because of the complexity of the debate, full details of this are discussed in the 'Sampling' section of this module.


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Open/close headingMeasurement error

Some researchers (Sax et al. 2003) have found online surveys to be subject to some unreliability (or 'measurement error') because responses to the same question vary if the questionnaire is administered online or onsite. Others (Carini et al. 2003) note this measurement error to be particularly large when technology related questions are included in a questionnaire because respondents who complete online surveys are usually more technologically competent than those completing onsite surveys.


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Open/close headingNon-response bias

This is the bias introduced when the respondents who answer an online questionnaire have very different attitudes or demographic characteristics to those who do not respond. This is particularly the case for online questionnaires because some social groups are underrepresented among internet users, including people of limited financial resources, members of some ethnic groups, older people and those with lower educational levels (Umbach 2004). Non-response bias is also increased when different levels of technical ability are present among the respondents, and it becomes a particular problem when response rates are low. This may be related to anxieties about getting viruses or becoming a victim of identity theft. Bosnjak et al. (1991) have identified seven patterns in a typology of non-response, as shown in the following diagram:

[i] Select the processing types for a description of each. A text-only alternative is provided below if required.


Open/close headingText-only alternative


Complete responders:

Those responders who view and answer all questions.

Answering drop-outs:

Those who provide answers to those questions displayed, but quit prior to completing the survey.

Item nonresponders:

Those responders who view the whole questionnaire, but only answer some of the questions.

Item nonresponding Drop-outs:

Those who view some of the questions, answer some but not all of those viewed, and also quit prior to the end of the survey. A 'more accurate depiction of actual events in web surveys than the relatively basic categorization of complete participation, unit nonresponse, or item non-response.'

Lurking drop-outs:

Those who view some of the questions without answering, but also quit the survey prior to reaching the end, thus sharing some characteristics with 'answering drop-outs' and 'lurkers'.

Unit non-responders:

Those who do not participate in the survey. There are two possible variations: They may be 'technically hindered' or may 'purposefully withdraw after the welcome screen is displayed, but prior to viewing any questions'.


Those who view all of the questions in the survey, but do not answer any of them.

Source: Bosnjak, M., Tuten, T. L., Bandilla, W. (1991) Participation in Web Surveys - A Typology, ZUMA Nachrichten 48, 7-17.


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Open/close headingLength, response and drop out rates

Online surveys may have to be shorter than those conducted onsite. Response rates drop off after 10-15 questions and are directly and negatively correlated with questionnaire length (Harris 1997). It is also reported that online surveys have lower overall response rates than onsite surveys, Witmer et al. (1999) suggesting response rates of 10% or lower being common. Additionally, it has been suggested that drop out from online questionnaires is much more likely than onsite questionnaires. This may be because individual questions regarding the completion of the online questionnaires are usually not possible, which can increase drop out rates. Finally, online questionnaires can be easily ignored and deleted at the touch of a button so getting a reasonable response rate can be challenging.


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Open/close headingTechnical Problems

Various technical problems can occur with online questionnaires. A computer or server may crash, for example, especially if the questionnaire is very long. There is also great technical variance in computers, monitors, browsers and internet connections which may have design implications - what works on a high-spec system may be impossible to read on a low-spec system. Specific technical problems noted include Smith's (1997) observation that a pop-up box implemented using JavaScript failed to appear when the respondent pressed the 'submit' button, resulting in multiple submissions of the same data being sent as the user tried repeated submission. Minimising reliance on complicated features is therefore important and careful piloting will mimimise technical difficulties. All these problems can be compounded by the fast pace of change associated with information technologies, delivery devices, web interfaces and hardware and software tools. These changes in information technologies will influence our methodological options with respect to online questionnaires. For example, what methodological consequences will the development of wireless technologies, such as mobile phones, which separate the internet from the computer and interactive television and speech recognition software, have on the development of online questionnaires? A final disadvantage is that a certain level of technical expertise is required to administer an online questionnaire. If a researcher does not have this knowledge, they must take time and effort to obtain it or they must rely on a programmer to provide it.


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Open/close headingEthical issues

Protecting respondent privacy and confidentiality is a significant ethical issue. Spamming can be considered an invasion of privacy (Umbach 2004). Researchers must be very careful not to unwittingly collect information without respondent permission. Data security is also important to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of the respondent. Because of the complexity of the debate, full details of these ethical issues are discussed in the 'Online research ethics' module.


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Open/close headingLearning activity: Review quiz

Part 1

[?] Answer the following questions by selecting the one correct option in each case .

Check Answers


Part 2

[?] Give a short description of the following types of non-responders:

a. Complete responders

b. Item non-responders

c. Unit non-responders

d. Lurking dropouts

Check Answers


Part 3

[?] The following diagram shows seven patterns of non-response described in the 'non-response bias' section above. Complete it by dragging the five types at the top to the correct place in the diagram. A text-only alternative is provided below if required.

Open/close headingText-only alternative

From the following list of non-responder types, which are best described by the following summaries?


1. Answering dropouts
2. Item non-responding dropouts
3. Lurkers
4. Complete responders
5. Unit non-responders


a. Views all questions and answers all questions

b. Drops out after viewing and answering one or more questions

c. Views some questions without answering all those viewed. Drops out before the end.

d. Views the welcome page but does not begin.

e. Views all questions but answers none

Open/close headingAnswers



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