Guidelines for Internet Surveys
Guidelines for Implementing Internet/Web Surveys
To aid researchers, the WPI IRB has prepared a set of guidelines, including an example of an e-mail request to participate, for implementing Internet or Web surveys. The Guidelines do not cover issues of sampling or survey design, but rather methodological and ethical issues that arise in contacting respondents and soliciting their cooperation.
1. The IRB believes that researchers that they have an ethical obligation to follow best practices to assure valid results. Otherwise, it would be “unethical to burden respondents with a request for participation” (Groves et al., 2009:372). This means that before researchers begin a survey, they should consult appropriate references on how best to conduct surveys. A good reference for Internet surveys is Dillman, Smyth, and Christian’s Internet, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method (2009). Another valuable resource is the set of “Best Practices” found on the Web site of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, an organization dedicated to establishing professional standards for survey research. (See http://www.aapor.org/Best_Practices/2845.htm.)
2. The first step in implementing a survey is to contact respondents and ask them to participate. The sample letter, modeled after Figure 7.12 in Dillman, Smyth, and Christian (2009), contains the essential elements of an e-mail request for an Internet survey. Notice that the request describes the topic of the survey, how or why the respondent was selected to participate, and how to access the survey; assures that participation is voluntary and all responses are confidential; and provides contact information for those who have questions or comments.
3. The sample e-mail request describes an Internet survey in which researchers can identify who completes the survey. For surveys in which an individualized ID is not provided, where respondents simply click on the link to gain access to the survey, responses can be anonymous. In the latter case, the request should state that participation is voluntary and anonymous.
4. Although e-mail contacts may seem relatively informal, it is still important to maintain the professionalism of the contacts. Therefore, you should not follow such common e-mail practices as avoiding punctuation, using all capital letters, and using acronyms (e.g., BTW = “by the way” or FYI = “for your information”).
5. One common indicator of survey quality is the response rate—the number of people who complete the survey divided by the number who are contacted. Obtaining an adequate response rate in Internet surveys is especially difficult; however, there are several ways to increase the likelihood that a contact will respond. First, so far as possible in an e-mail communication, personalize the request. Research has shown that students are more likely to respond to a salutation that is personalized (Dear [First Name]) than one that is not personalized (Dear student). They also are more likely to respond to individual messages than to a bulk e-mail in which the message is sent to multiple recipients at once. Bulk messages may be flagged as spam. Moreover, as Dillman, Smyth, and Christian (2009:273) point out, the appearance of multiple e-mail addresses “in the ‘To’ field raises serious ethical considerations, as confidentiality can no longer be ensured.”
6. Another means of increasing response rates is to use carefully spaced reminders or follow-up requests. Follow-ups are a common practice in surveys. They are most effective when the content of the message is not repeated over and over but varies somewhat with each request (for examples, see Dillman, Smyth, and Christian, 2009:277-279). Usually, two or three follow-ups are used, as additional requests may irritate contacts and are not likely to yield significant gains.
7. For additional guidelines, see Dillman, Smyth, and Christian (2009: 271-296).
Dillman, Don A., Jolene D. Smyth, and Leah Melani Christian, Internet, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.
Groves, Robert M., Floyd J. Fowler, Jr., Mick P. Couper, James M. Lepkowski, Eleanor Singer, and Roger Tourangeau, Survey Methodology, 2nd Edition, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.