(1997) 'Using the Internet for Survey Research'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 2, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/2/1/2.html>
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Received: 3/1/97 Accepted: 19/6/97 Published: 30/6/97
The Internet and electronic mail increasingly offer the research
community opportunities that it did not previously have. Access
to information has increased as has access to and discussion
with those working in similar areas. One other aspect of 'cyberspace'
which presents enormous possibilities to the research community,
currently in its infancy, is the use of the Internet to reach
individuals as research subjects. In particular, there may be
significant research benefits to be gleaned where the group
being researched is normally difficult to reach and/or the issues
being researched are of a particularly sensitive nature. This
paper outlines some recent survey research using the Internet
as the interface between researcher and researched. The target
group, illicit 'drug dealers', are difficult to access under
normal conditions and contacting a spread of such individuals
across international borders was previously prohibitive. A discussion
of sampling issues is undertaken which concludes that the Internet
can be a valuable source of indicative as opposed to easily
generalisable data. A practical guide to undertaking research
via the Internet is also included.
Drugs; Internet; Internet Research; Internet Sampling; Newsgroups
Research; Survey Research; World Wide Web.
1.1 The existence of the Internet and the World
Wide Web (WWW) clearly provides new horizons for the researcher.
A potentially vast population of all kinds of individuals and
groups may be more easily reached than ever before, across geographical
borders, and even continents. This is particularly true in relation
to comparative social survey research. However, whilst the Internet
and WWW does offer new and exciting prospects for sociological
research, in many respects the methodological issues which it
raises are by and large not new. The key issue that any survey
research conducted via the Internet will have to contend with,
as with non-Internet based surveys, is that of sampling bias.
At present this is more acute than it is likely to be in the
future because contact can only be made with those who can and
do use the Internet and the WWW, and all that implies in terms
of background, education, gender and resources. As use of this
technology becomes more general, as is already happening, and
methods for collection improve, concerns around sampling bias
will come to resemble more closely those which regularly affect
conventional surveys. The relative exclusivity of current Internet
use needs to be considered seriously but it does not preclude
attempts to do useful and informative sociological research,
particularly on population sub-groups. Depending, for example,
on who, and what, is being researched, the issue of 'representativeness'
and sample bias will be of greater or lesser importance in comparison
to the indicative data that has been collected. Not insignificantly,
at other times, users of advanced communication technology may
be exactly the individuals that the research is aiming to reach.
Other sampling concerns, such as understanding the differences
in those who respond to surveys and those who do not, are similar
for conventional surveys which are reliant upon respondents'
replies to an invitation to contribute. Again, depending on
what it is that is being researched, this will matter to a greater
or lesser extent. Other problems relating to doing research
via the Internet and the WWW, at this stage of its development
and in relation to the sociological research community, revolve
around how actually to go about doing it and what issues need
to be considered when undertaking such research.
1.2 This article will briefly outline some
recent research undertaken via the Internet and the WWW into
the practices of drug dealers and their drug adulteration/dilution
practices (the 'cutting' of drugs with other substances to increase
profit margins on drugs sold). Discussion will focus primarily
on the problem of sample bias in relation to this research and
then be extended to consider this issue more broadly for other
sociological research on the Internet and WWW. Following this,
a detailed description of how this research was carried out
will be combined with some guidance on how other researchers,
new to this technology, may utilize it for their own research
Background to my Internet Based Research on Drug Dealers
2.1 Between 1994 and 1996 I carried out a review
of the disparate forensic evidence concerning illicit drug purity
(which partially includes the analysis of other substances found
in them). Further to this, I also interviewed 31 drug dealers,
located in South East London. The combined pieces of research
1997a; 1997b) enabled me to make the assertion that the
practice of dangerous drug adulteration/dilution
was neither common, nor for a variety of reasons logistically
likely. This assertion was contrary to professional (drug agency
workers), academic (drug field related), drug user, drug dealer,
political, media and thus general public perception of what
makes up street drugs. In fact, I further asserted (again on
the basis of the forensic evidence and professed practice of
the dealers interviewed) that the 'cutting agents' that are
found in street drugs were there either 'to enhance' the drug,
to bulk it out (but safely), or both. As such, common diluents
found to be present in street drugs were lactose and glucose
whilst common adulterants were paracetamol and caffeine. Finally,
not only did I conclude dangerous adulteration/dilution
was anomalous, but I also found that the actual practice of
adulteration/dilution with any substance was not as prevalent
as commonly believed. Primarily, this was due to the other means
which were open to drug dealers to secure profit on their sales
and that many dealers were not confident in tampering with the
drugs they sold in this way. For example, 65% of those who sold
heroin and 73% of those who had sold amphetamine said that they
never adulterated or diluted the heroin/amphetamine that they
sold (Coomber, 1997b). Most of the findings from my work
were at odds with what was normally considered to occur in the
trafficking and dealing of illicit drugs. In the conventional
model it was assumed (as per Preble and
Casey, 1969) that as drugs passed down the chain of distribution
(from the importer through to the street dealer) they were 'stepped
on' or 'cut' at each level to increase the profit margin of
each purchaser. This essentially USA model, countered by my
research, did not match the reality of the drug trade in the
UK in the 1990s. The research question I then wanted to ask
was whether it any longer fitted the reality of the drug trade
in the USA or any other countries. This was not an area of research
being pursued elsewhere however, and accessing drug dealing
populations on an international scale is obviously prohibitive
in all manner of ways in the absence of substantial funding.
The Internet beckoned as a means for me to explore the question
2.2 As I shall discuss below, that I had some
prior significant familiarity with the research area underpinned
the efficacy of using the Internet as a means to carry out this
piece of work.
My Findings (Briefly)
3.1 Regarding the research I carried out via the
Internet and the WWW, 80 responses (considered to be reliable)
were received from 14 countries and 4 continents. USA dominance
of the Internet was reflected by the fact that 40% (32) of responses
came from that country. The rest were from countries such as
the UK (10), Canada (9), Australia (5) and others from as far
afield as Finland, South Africa and New Zealand.
3.2 Consistent with the forensic evidence and
with my earlier work (Coomber,
1997b), neither the extent of involvement in selling drugs
(whether drugs sales represented total or supplemental income)
or the point in the chain of distribution that they were located
(importer, wholesaler, 'street-dealer') could enable the detection
of the likelihood of someone being involved in adulteration/dilution
practices. The majority of my respondents, (63), reported either
'never' (47) or 'rarely' (16), cutting the drugs that they sold.
Again, this is consistent with my earlier work which shows that
purity levels of drugs such as heroin seized at street level
differ less than might be expected from samples seized at, or
prior to, importation (Coomber,
1997a). Whilst most respondents believed that the cutting
of drugs with dangerous substances was common, none reported
using dangerous adulterants/diluents such as strychnine, brick-dust,
domestic scouring powders such as Vim or Ajax ('Vim-in-the-Veins')
themselves. This question was also accompanied by a question
asking for first hand knowledge of such cutting (with details)
- so that they could, if hesitant to admit to the practice personally,
instead refer to some mythical other as the one responsible.
Evidence of dangerous adulteration - as in Coomber (1997b)
- was not forthcoming. The primary reasons given by the respondents
as to why they did not use dangerous substances were of the
humanitarian/ethical kind: 'I don't want to hurt anyone' and/or
of the rational calculative 'the comeback', 'it's not good for
business', the two often overlapping. Other important reasons
involved the common practice of 'bagging' and 'wrapping' of
larger quantities into smaller drug sales where the mark-up
on smaller sales enabled reasonable profit, and the (slightly
rarer) practice of 'skimming' where sales were sold slightly
underweight, again increasing profit margins. These methods,
often employed as the primary means to secure profit, also often
made the dilution of drugs unnecessary. Overall, this research
1997a; 1997b) suggested that the picture of adulteration/dilution
practices being built up for the UK in the 1990s was likely
to be more broadly generalisable to other countries. Dangerous
adulteration/dilution is in all likelihood a 'street myth',
less adulteration/dilution than is commonly believed actually
occurs, and that when it does it is with relatively harmless
substances such as caffeine, glucose, lactose, paracetamol and
other 'over the counter' drugs. Discussion of the methods and
sample involved will be discussed more fully below.
4.1 I would have liked to have had a representative
one, but nobody knows what this looks like in relation to drug
dealers. There is not even much in the way of hypothesizing
(see Dorn et al, 1992
for some discussion on this). Drug dealers, by the very nature
of their activities, are a very difficult group to access. Often
the drug addict who would be willing to be visible for research
purposes for research into drug addiction would not be
willing to be visible as a drug dealer for research into drug
dealing for obvious reasons. Given this, the main concern
was to try to obtain a reasonable spread of individuals who
had been involved in selling drugs at different levels of the
chain of illicit drug distribution (user-dealer; 'street' dealer;
wholesaler; friend-only dealer etc) and at different levels
of involvement (received total income from drug sales; supplemented
income; covered cost of drugs only) as this was considered to
be primarily influential in adulteration/dilution practices.
In my earlier work (Coomber,
1997b) reaching dealers at different points in the chain
of distribution was largely achieved by access to a captive
prison population. Those contacted who were not in prison all
refused to provide me with contacts of other dealers with which
they had connections. Using the 'snowballing' technique as a
means to accessing either a broad population, or indeed any
other drug dealers at all, was thus unsuccessful.
4.2 So, whilst my Internet sample were a voluntaristic sample,
they were also probably a broader sample (in terms of the population
sought) than would be achieved by other convenience sampling
methods, such as snowballing, as the primary problem with using
this method regarding drug dealers would be transcending levels
of distribution, where in the research I carried out on the
Internet a spread of contacts across the chain of distribution
was achieved. Of those responding to my Internet survey, 19
received the bulk of their income from selling drugs. The majority
'supplemented' their income through drugs sales, although a
significant number of these individuals were dealing in large
amounts of drugs. Those classified as 'street' dealers numbered
There were at least eight 'middlemen' at the wholesale level,
two who responded that they were importers, and one had been
a manufacturer (MDA, MDMA). The majority of those remaining
were relatively less involved and reported selling mainly to
friends and acquaintances. As such, the sample attained for
this research provided a reasonable spread of individuals that
have been involved across the levels of drug distribution and
with different intensities of involvement. The findings are
obviously indicative and should be read with the necessary caution
(accepting the likely relative sample bias). However,
given that the findings tend to support both the forensic evidence
and the more localized, terrestrial research which preceded
it, it seems reasonable to suggest that the picture of adulteration/dilution
practices built up for the UK may be more generalisable on the
international level. If the findings had contradicted the earlier
research this also would have been a significant indicator demonstrating
both that important differences in adulteration practices take
place in different locations and that the Internet was a valuable
resource for finding such things out.
4.3 Undoubtedly in this particular case there
were benefits from using the Internet, and specifically that
it enabled me some access to a group who are notoriously difficult
to research and to glean some interesting indicative information
on a sensitive subject. However, some important methodological
issues remain. When I first considered the results of my Web
survey, I concluded that, because the results corroborated my
previous research, the results cannot have been excessively
biased. However, on further reflection, it became clear that
there are actually two 'unknowns' here: neither the amount of
bias, nor whether the results are 'true', are (or can be) known.
all that can be deduced from this research is that either the
results are true and there is no significant bias, or the results
are false and there is bias.
Internet-User Sample Bias: Having a Method which is Appropriate
for Particular Types of Research
5.1 Clearly, when using the Internet for survey
research there will be a bias in terms of who is responding
and a relative lack of representation of those who do not have
access to the Internet. Those responding will be users of advanced
information technology, with all that this suggests in terms
of class/stratification, education, personal and life resources.
A number of surveys into the demographics of Internet users
have consistently found that Internet users are more likely
to be white, male, first world residents, relatively affluent
and relatively well educated in comparison to any more general
population (Nielsen &
CommerceNet, 1995; Kehoe &
Pitkow, 1996). This obviously makes generalizing about research
findings from Internet users to the general population highly
problematic. Importantly however, the demographic research suggests
that significant changes are occurring which move the user group
in the direction of greater representativeness: 'While Internet
users still tend to be upscale, their overall characteristics
are coming more in line with general population averages', and,
'Internet access and use are becoming increasingly mainstream'
1996), also see Fisher et al(1996);
et al (1996) and Kehoe and Pitkow
(1996). Good news for the future perhaps but a range of
difficulties remain in the mean-time. Moreover, doing research
via the Internet also presents its own specific issues regarding
sampling which go beyond the representativeness or otherwise
of the aggregate user population.
5.2 Work on Internet demographics has demonstrated
that the Internet can be used to sample effectively to a point,
and particularly that it can be used to produce relatively informative
and reliable data about Internet users. Moreover, technical
methods to improve the reliability of such first level research
are constantly being theorized and refined (Urken, 1996;
Pitkow, 1996). However, once we go beyond this, to use the
Internet as a means to investigate beyond the use of the Internet,
problems regarding sampling are exacerbated. There has however
been little published to date about this, in particular because
of a lack of appropriate exposure to and expertise regarding
the Internet in the social science research community. Where
such attempts have been made, there is some useful discussion
of the pros and cons of using the Internet as a medium for accessing
et al (1996) for instance, whilst investigating 'how citizens
are using the Internet to participate in civil life' quickly
realized that getting a representative sample was, even from
a sample where Internet use itself was a defining parameter,
a 'virtual impossibility'. Despite the significant survey research
experience of the team, consultation with colleagues at the
University of Cincinnati and other institutions and with those
at the Public Opinion Research mailing list, no comprehensive
solutions to the sampling issue emerged. The problem, simply
put, was this:
There is no comprehensive list of individuals who
use the Internet, nor is there any certainty about how many
users log on from any particular node. ... Complications stem
not merely from individuals having multiple accounts at various
nodes or multiple memberships in various Internet groups (something
analogous to having multiple phone lines) but also from the
ability of 'lurkers' to read and reply to messages posted for
groups to which they may not formally be registered (Fisher et
al, 1996: p. 16).
And so, rather than trying to sample individuals 'out there',
they decided to target a range of USAENET newsgroups and LISTSERV
(email) mailing lists. Within this, they further stratified
their samples by selecting obviously political and non-political
groups. By sampling from a large enough number of groups of
each type (30 or more) they assumed, utilizing the central limit
theorem, that their samples would be of a reasonable spread.
5.4 In light of their experience, Fisher et al
(1996) have suggested a range of procedures to improve the
representativeness of samples when surveying on the Internet.
These include 'a combination of political and technical strategies'
(p. 22), such as gaining the confidence of the managers of the
lists that are to be posted to and thus (perhaps) 'official'
approval of the project, and the use of screening techniques
to improve feedback about where the responses originated, amongst
others. Importantly, they concluded that, despite the problems
relating to survey research via the Internet and the need to
develop more sophisticated techniques (and on this point also
see Urken, 1996;
Pitkow and Kehoe,
1996) in relation to the collection of data which could
test formal hypotheses or models the mailing of surveys to 'mailing
lists and newsgroups can produce data suitable for exploratory
analysis' (p. 22, my emphasis).
5.5 Similarly, undertook a survey of those
receiving political information direct from the White House
(to email addresses and from the WWW) in order to assess how
this affected the 'flow of political information' to civil society
given that the media and other established institutions of mass
communication were being partially by-passed. Again, their research
had a particular population in mind, those who received political
information via the White House, and these were contacted either
direct to the email lists or through their visitation to the
White House Web-Site. Responses to their survey suggest that
there is evidence that those who utilize the WWW to access political
information unmediated by the news media are 'changing the way
that people feel about and participate in politics' (Boncheck
et al, 1996: p. 6). Concern over representation, particularly
in regards to voluntary response and non-response, was highlighted
et al as a problem and discussed by them. The demographic
status of their respondents, however, closely resembled those
that derived from demographic surveys of Internet users in general,
including no bias towards heavy users, leading them to conclude
that: 'the demographic profile for individual users approximates
the profile of that produced by a random sampling of users,
if that were possible' (p. 4). For Boncheck
et al, the data collected by means of the Internet can be
considered useful indicative data upon which further research
may build and information regarding the changing nature of political
5.6 Surveys of particular Internet users raise
somewhat different issues. The many USAENET newsgroups offer
the opportunity to access populations with a wide range of interests.
Some of these groups may be explicitly for individuals who have
an interest, have taken part, or are taking part, in particular
behaviours (eg. newsgroups on kite-flying, prostitution or heraldry),
or who have a particular orientation towards certain ways of
thinking and/or behaving (Alcoholics Anonymous; entrepreneurship;
republicanism). Although there is a paucity of information regarding
the surveying of particular newsgroups via the Internet, it
is clear that many of the problems outlined earlier for more
general surveys also apply here although in a different form.
More specifically, a questionnaire posted onto one newsgroup
may be posted onto numerous other newsgroups (as happened to
Fisher et al,
1996), and this can cause immense problems unless some means
of identifying where the response came from exists, and which
is not always easy to ensure. Moreover, depending on the research
population, this may be ethically prohibitive: for instance
in my own research outlined earlier on drug dealers, the tracing
or monitoring of respondents to any degree might have jeopardised
the research itself and/or render the respondents open to prosecution.
5.7 If the concern of the survey is to contact
members of a particular newsgroup only, then the occurrence
of this could be extremely problematic, as the sample would
be difficult or impossible to control. If, however, the primary
concern is to contact individuals who are, say, kite-flyers,
as opposed to members of the kite-flyers newsgroup, then it
may not be. Kite-flyers may be expected to cluster around the
kite-flyers newsgroup and thus a strategy of posting there is
bona fide, but might not wish to be exclusive of kite-flyers
from elsewhere. When looking for general group opinions, beliefs
or other characteristics of populations who are members of specific
USAENET groups, then concern over the difference between those
who do respond and do not respond may be very important. Those
who do not respond may predominately hold different opinions,
beliefs or other characteristics from those who volunteered
their responses, and this of course would significantly affect
the research. It is, however, primarily the responsibility of
the designer of the research to be aware of the issues that
might produce a non-response bias (Shipman, 1988)
and weight the responses appropriately. If, for example, we
wanted to know whether box kites or some other popular design
tended to be favoured by male or by female kite-enthusiasts
and for what reasons, the Kite-flyers newsgroup could well be
the source of a good basic data set. Non-response in this instance
might not be as important than if the same group of people were
targeted about say, the politics of kite-flying, although this
would need to be considered carefully in the research design.
5.8 Doing research on Internet populations
or with Internet populations can, then, provide certain research
opportunities, but as Fisher et al
(1996: p. 23) have stated in relation to sampling problems
'the Internet is not as open ... as a site for survey research
... as it appears to be at first flush'. We should not be too
downhearted about this however, for there are other opportunities
where the concerns of general surveys are lessened for sociologists
and where the potential of the Internet remains real, as I will
go on to discuss. Whilst researching particular types of Internet
users as Internet users modify the sampling problem away from
a concern with the representativeness of general populations,
research not concerned with Internet users as a group involves
other issues. For instance, sample bias may be of less concern
to a researcher when they are interested in particular (especially
'deviant' or hidden) types of behaviour, as distinct from looking
for representative or generalisable behaviour. 'Deviant' or
'rare element' sampling where the target population is difficult
to access is in fact rarely able to aim for representativeness
in any case (Smith, 1975).
Thus, we might wonder, how much more data and how many more
contacts Zinberg (1984)
might have had for his studies on how people consciously act
to control their drug use if he had been able to use a resource
such as the Internet, rather than adverts in newspapers and
college bulletin boards. Prior to Zinberg's work, the assumed
representativeness of heroin users was that they were addicted
users, while his research pointed to the 'invisible' population
of heroin 'chippers' (occasional users) now deemed to predominate
in heroin use, and the Internet, would most probably have been
able to demonstrate the existence of large numbers of such users.
5.9 It is important to acknowledge that there
is not always reliable information as to what a 'representative
population' is. Prior assumption about what defines a given
research population (derived from say treatment or criminal
justice samples) and thus assumption (by default) of what constitutes
a non-representative sample, has considerable dangers, not least
that it can be lead to the dismissal of new information. Thus,
methodologically tight follow-up research into the re-occurrence
of opiate addiction amongst Vietnam veterans who had been addicts
whilst in Vietnam was at first disregarded by experts, for it
showed an extremely low (around 5% after one year) rate of relapse,
and this finding was disregarded because it did not fit with
the pre-existing theoretical stance on heroin addiction. However,
twenty-five years later it stands as an informative and indeed
classic piece of research.
5.10 Some groups, due to the existence of
the Internet may well be more easily reached now than ever before.
It is up to the sociologist, as a researcher to explore how
useful the Internet might be to their particular research concerns.
Whilst it is proper, indeed essential, to point out the problems
with data derived from restricted sampling, it is also worth
remembering that such data can also lead research in new and
Targeting a Sample, Preserving Anonymity and Ensuring a Response
6.1 The rest of this paper will outline how
I carried out my research into drug adulteration/dilution
practices via the Internet. For an alternative account of how
survey research utilizing the Internet may be approached, see
(1997), and for those interested in how ethnographic approaches
may be applied to cyberspace communities, see Paccagnella
6.2 There are a number of ways of attracting
people who use the Internet to your research and some will be
more successful than others. Simply having a Web page, for example
(a 'location' on the Internet at which you can put information,
a questionnaire or a link to other sites), will not be sufficient.
This is analogous to waiting for people to come to you, and
while some will (maybe), many will not. In my research, I decided
to exploit those areas where it was self evident that those
interested in drugs, and those who use or have used drugs, spend
some of their cyberspace time - the drug related newsgroups.
A rough search of drug related newsgroups (English language)
turned up 23 main groups. These ranged from the alt.drugs.hard
newsgroup where those interested in the so-called 'hard'
drugs post questions, pose queries, answer questions and provide
information, to rec.drugs.misc where issues around the
so-called 'smart' drugs, stimulants and sedatives and other
miscellaneous items are aired. Whilst it is true that drug dealers
are potentially anywhere (and therefore posting to the thousands
of different interest related newsgroups was a possibility),
it made more sense (and conformed more closely to Net-etiquette
- of which more later) to concentrate my effort around these
groups. As such, my request to take part in the research was
posted to each of the many drug related groups. Getting people
to take part was less straight forward.
6.3 As previously discussed, accessing illicit
drug sellers is a difficult business. This is made more problematic
when the means used to receive responses - communication from
one registered user to another - means that the sender is potentially
(and normally) traceable: Email, for example, provides a sender's
unique address. Concerns about anonymity were paramount in the
minds of many of those I was trying to contact. One USA lawyer
who had noticed my posting emailed me that, as the USA and the
UK had arrangements for sharing of information involving criminal
activity, I was unwittingly laying myself open to being subpoenaed
to present the identities and/or electronic mail addresses of
those contributing to my survey. Other 'surfers'
also expressed their concerns as to how I could be sure that
the USA Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or other such
organizations were not 'tapping' my line and thus tracing back
information to where it came from, leaving me open to accusations
of unwittingly entrapping others. These are serious issues and
may concern others wishing to undertake sensitive research on
the Internet (Lee, 1993;
& Nachmias, 1992). Such problems, however, are largely
6.4 There are a number of ways that a researcher
can protect their respondents and themselves from potential
prosecution/subpoena. By effectively protecting our respondents
and demonstrating to them that we can protect them, we are also
more likely (logic suggests) to attract a greater response from
what may be (and was in this case) a very vulnerable group.
6.5 Ideally, especially if you are expecting
a potentially large number of responses you will have a questionnaire
(for example) located on a Web Page which respondents can 'fill-in'
online at a terminal. Included in the posting will be a 'click-on'
address for the Web Page which will whisk them to the questionnaire
which is set up there waiting to be filled in. 'Behind' this
questionnaire there will be a programme (preferably on a secure
that will store the data being sent through. This may be a database
or an appropriate statistical package.
This will have the double benefit of (a) providing inputted
data ready for analysis, and (b) as these packages will store
only the fields specified, information on where the data came
from is not stored nor available. Thus, even if a researcher
was to be asked for such data, they would have no information
on who had sent it.
These facts should be (briefly) explained to potential respondents.
6.6 For the benefit of those potential respondents
who may feel that such procedures (being invisible to them and
needing to be taken on trust) are insufficient, the following
two options should also be suggested: first, that they use an
anonymous terminal (eg. in a public library, university laboratory,
cyber-cafe) where the response cannot be traced to an individual.
Second, that they print off the questionnaire (of which a text
copy version is to be included at the bottom of the newsgroup
posting) and return it by post (colloquially known by email
users as 'snail-mail').
6.7 These precautions are somewhat onerous
but when dealing with an (understandably) vulnerable and thus
relatively more suspicious group, they are also essential.
6.8 But of course, any research posting must
be interesting enough to get noticed and secure responses. My
research experience suggests that a description of the research
should be provided which will catch the eye of those being targeted.
In the case of my research the Subject Heading used to advertise
the posting on the newsgroup was: Have You Ever Sold Powdered
Drugs? If So, I Would Like Your Help. If people's curiosity
was raised by this heading then a simple 'click' on it would
take them to the posting which explained in more detail what
the research was and why it was being carried out. If still
interested, a select the posting then whisked people to my
Web Page and questionnaire.
6.9 Because newsgroup postings are removed after a period of
time a researcher using the Internet will benefit by re-posting
the message regularly. New visitors are accessing the site all
the time. As a posting moves down the list it may fall off the
end (some people only look at the first 50 postings for example,
and many newsgroups have literally thousands of postings). 'Re-post
the message on a weekly basis' is the best advice here.
6.10 Having concentrated on the newsgroup which is pertinent
to a piece of research, the researcher may then, depending on
their resources (essentially, time), target more closely. This
may be done by mailing to the individuals who have posted onto
the newsgroup. Postings automatically record the email address
of the postee unless they purposely do not provide it, although
the vast majority do. For example, a hypothetical research project
wanting to access individuals who have experience of using
psychedelic drugs can by targeting more specifically individuals
who have readily admitted (to a world wide audience) to have
used such substances in their discussion postings. Newsgroups
such as rec.drugs.psychedelic, alt.drugs.psychedelic or
even plain old alt.drugs have numerous discussions on
such issues. Emailing these individuals directly and politely
asking them if they would be willing to contribute to the research
is not unreasonable - they have already declared publicly their
willingness to discuss issues around drug use and have provided
an address for personal contact. Depending on the nature of
the research and concerns around anonymity, many of these users
(as was the case for my research) will be willing to contribute
in a more in-depth way.
6.11 Not everyone who accesses newsgroups
has what is known as a graphical interface (eg. Netscape), on
their computer, and therefore these individuals will not be
able to access easily
or fill in a Web Page based questionnaire. This problem will
of course diminish over time, but at present it affects a large
group of people world-wide. Accessing newsgroups on the Internet,
however, only requires the ability to use email. Thus having
a text copy of the questionnaire on the posting enables these
individuals to take part if they wish to do so.
6.12 Whilst the Internet is overwhelmingly English speaking
(and USA dominated) there are numerous foreign language newsgroups
covering a vast number of countries. Here all that is required
is a translation of the research posting into the appropriate
language, and a posting to the appropriate newsgroups. The vast
number of (often narrowly) differentiated newsgroups that are
found in the English speaking groups may not be replicated in
the non-English groups. Thus a newsgroup dedicated to drug issues
does not appear under the French language newsgroups but a small
number do in the German language newsgroups. Of course a researcher
can duplicate the whole process, having a French, German, Spanish
or whatever language questionnaire located on a Web Page with
a storage package behind it but unless a great many responses
from these newsgroups are expected a translation of the posting
with the questionnaire added at the bottom will suffice and
the translated data (posted, or emailed to you directly) can
later be input into the Web based questionnaire by the researcher.
Little more than a translation of the message is required, as
posting is simple and quick.
6.13 My research included a posting (in German)
to German newsgroups that were dedicated to drugs, such as de.alt.drogen
or that were closely drug related or where drug issues had
been debated, and also to French newsgroups (in French) where
drugs issues had actually been discussed. The French newsgroups
varied in their nature and tended to be more broad in their
ambit than most English language newsgroups (mainly due to there
being less of them), such as fr.misc.divers (a french
newsgroup dealing with miscellaneous issues of a diverse nature)
and soc.culture.french (a french newsgroup dealing with
issues of society and culture). Again, depending on the nature
of the research in mind this opens up new possibilities in terms
of the numbers of potential participants involved in the research
and, potentially, also in terms of cross-societal/cultural comparisons.
For example, a broad based research project on 'identity' could
potentially do very well on the various soc.culture (soc.culture.spanish;
soc.culture.french; soc.culture.hungarian etc) news groups,
whereas a project concerned with sexual abuse may struggle.
7.1 The internet has its own general operating
guidelines on how to use and not abuse it. This is colloquially
known as 'netiquette'. Most newsgroups have their own variation
of netiquette. It is important not to breach netiquette whilst
undertaking research as the result will be few responses and
a barrage of mail informing a researcher of their non-compliance.
Breaching netiquette is deemed, simply, as rude and not to be
encouraged or tolerated. Most basic netiquette is in fact fairly
commonsensical, but two basic practices should be avoided which
may be tempting to the researcher.
7.2 First, 'spamming', which is the colloquial
term used to describe the seemingly arbitrary posting of messages
to multiple newsgroups, sometimes with the intent to cause some
annoyance, but, for a researcher, in order to contact as many
potential respondents as is possible. For example, the posting
of puritan propaganda to drugs newsgroups (as well as many others)
but with no real intention of involving or starting/making a
constructive and useful contribution to that area, would be
seen as a spam. If a researcher's target group is likely to
be disparately located, they can of course avoid the accusation
(and of course the 'corrective' mail) of spamming simply by
posting separately to the different newsgroups. This is because
the posting will show which newsgroups they have posted to.
A posting with 100 different and differential newsgroups will
tend to look like a spam. When an approach includes a range
of closely matched groups, as with some (but not all) drug related
research, then multiple posting to these groups is of course
not unreasonable. It should be self-evident to those reading
the newsgroup that such a posting is not inappropriately placed.
7.3 The second practice to be avoided is that colloquially
known as 'flaming'. Essentially, this means resisting the urge
to correct too dismissively (with inappropriate language or
style of language) and postings which themselves 'flame' or
rubbish (often with rude or dismissive language) an original
request. Being 'flamed' to a personal email address is also
something a researcher might experience if they are considered
to have be breached netiquette.
8.1 Using the Internet as a tool for survey
research offers exciting new possibilities to the researche.
However, whilst it is important that the potential of the Internet
is grasped it is equally important that its limitations on research
are understood. Using the Internet as a means to accessing samples
in some way representative of general populations is currently
prevented by who has access to it and who is using it. Moreover,
even when the desired sample is of Internet users themselves
significant technical and operational problems remain in terms
of how to ensure the population targeted is in fact the population
which responds. Given this, doing survey research on the Internet
will, for the time-being, continue to present a certain amount
of unknowns regarding sample bias. Despite these problems it
is has been the purpose of this paper to refer the reader to
a number of pieces of survey research undertaken via the Internet
where the indicative data was deemed to be useful and the research
worthwhile. For while the Internet poses methodological problems
of one kind it opens up possibilities of others: access to hard
to reach populations on sensitive topics, for example, and,
as with my research on the adulteration/dilution practices of
drug dealers, across national borders and even continents. Researchers
that are aware of the problems presented by doing survey research
via the Internet and who apply themselves appropriately, can,
and I am sure will, increasingly carry out important research
via this medium.
1 31 drug dealers were contacted
through a variety of methods, including 13 who had been convicted
of supplying drugs and were interviewed in a South London prison.
The 31 included mainly 'street' dealers (an incorrect term as
almost no dealing in the UK takes place on the 'street') but
also two 'importers'. They ranged from those who had sold drugs
over many years in (relatively) large volumes to those who had
sold (sometimes intermittently) merely to support their own
drug habit. Significant differences in the practices of adulteration/dilution
of the drugs being sold were not evident regardless of the type
and level of involvement in the drug distribution network.
2 The term adulterant is used in
this paper to refer to substances added to illicit drugs in
the process of selling and distribution. Adulterants proper,
are in fact other psychoactive drugs (like caffeine, or paracetamol)
which are much cheaper than the main substance, have a similar
or complimentary effect when mixed with it, and therefore help
hide the fact that the substance has been diluted. Substances
which are not psychoactive, such as glucose and lactose, are
more formally known as 'diluents'. These are added to a drug
to increase the amount of drug available to be sold. It should
be noted however that some substances which are found in street
drugs will be the result of the particular manufacturing process
used to make the drug. In this sense those substances might
be more properly referred to as 'impurities'. 'Excipients' found
in drugs (primarily pills/tablets) are the products used to
bind the drug together. Common excipients are starch, gelatin
or other gums (ISDD, 1994).
3 Five responses were self-evidently
'spoof' ones. Characteristically, they tended not to finish
the questionnaire, apparently getting fed up half-way through
and did not attempt to answer the questions sensibly. If any
of the 80 responses considered reliable were false responses
then these respondents tended to answer the questionnaire in
full, with apparently consistent, informed and non-sensational
answers. The researchers knowledge about common adulterants
and diluents and other aspects of the dealing/cutting process
aided in the assessment of how reliable the responses were.
All survey research however suffers from the possibility that
some returns will be disingenuous. In this case it is felt by
this researcher that the 80 considered were reliable. This is
partially supported by the similarity of returns to the 31 dealers
interviewed in Coomber (1997b)
where all were known to be drug dealers.
4 For those interested in a more
complete account of this research and the findings see Coomber (1997c)
and for a historical account of how and why such beliefs have
emerged and are perpetuated, Coomber (1997d).
5 I state 'around' 17 because it
is clear from a perusal of the data that many of those who said
that they sold only to friends and acquaintances are not reasonably
put in the friend-dealer category. For example, it is clear
that 'acquaintances' was interpreted very broadly and often
essentially meant that drugs were sold to individuals they trusted.
Thus whilst these respondents were not selling to anyone who
asked them they were also not only selling to friends as it
is normally understood.
6 'Surfing the internet' is a colloquial
term for people that ride over the electronic waves of the Internet
from one destination to another. Basically, it is a way of describing
a user of the Internet who is using it fairly indiscriminately.
For example, wishing to know more about a particular topic,
you can key in a search, be given the option of viewing a number
of related Web Sites from which the search may then extend to
where you know not useful and useless information being gained
on the way as you 'surf'.
7 You could set the storage programme
up on the hard disk of desk-top machines but this is of course
far less secure (in a range of ways - from disk/file corruption
to theft) than having it on a secure server which is regularly
backed up as a matter of course. For those who have access,
an arrangement with the manager of an institutional server linked
to your Web Site would be preferable.
8 It is not essential to set up
a questionnaire in this way but it is useful. The software needed
to do this is increasingly user-friendly and will continue to
become so. At this moment in time, access to help (eg. Computer
Services in academic institutions) on setting up the questionnaire
and database behind it is recommended.
9 Although this is true, institutions
which provide Internet services (including the University of
Greenwich server I had the data sent to), do log the address
of the host machine although this information is rarely accessed,
or used. The trick is to send it via a 'public' host machine,
and thus make it impossible to be traced to an individual.
10 I say easily because it can
be done through text based WWW client systems like Lynx but
this is not terribly straight forward and most users of the
Internet are increasingly using Web Browsers like Netscape and
Microsoft Internet Explorer.
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