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Advantages and Disadvantages of Internet Research Surveys: Evidence from the Literature Ronald D. Fricker, Jr. and Matthias Schonlau RAND E-mail and Web surveys have been the subject of much hyperbole about their capabilities as well as some criticism about their limitations. In this report we examine what is and is not known about the use of the Internet for surveying. Specifically, we consider evidence found in the literature regarding response rates, timeliness, data quality and cost. In light of this evidence, we evaluate popular claims that Internet-based surveys can be conducted faster, better, cheaper, and/or easier than surveys conducted via conventional modes. We find that the reality of cost and speed often does not live up to the hype. Nonetheless, it is possible to implement Internet-based surveys in ways that are effective and cost-efficient. We conclude that the Internet will continue to grow in importance for conducting certain types of research surveys.

INTRODUCTION With the advent of the World Wide Web (Web or WWW) and electronic mail (email), the Internet has opened up new vistas in surveying. Rather than mailing a paper survey, a respondent can now be given a hyperlink to a Web site containing the survey. Or, in an e-mail survey, a questionnaire is sent to a respondent via e-mail, possibly as an attachment. As either an alternative or an adjunct to conventional survey modes (e.g., the telephone, mail, and face-to-face interviewing) Internet-based surveys offer unique new capabilities. For example, a Web survey can relatively simply incorporate multi-media graphics and sound into the survey instrument. Similarly, other features that were once restricted to more expensive interviewer-assisted modes, such as automatic branching and real-time randomization of survey questions and/or answers, can be incorporated into self-administered Web (and some e-mail) surveys. However, not unlike when phone and mail surveys were first introduced, concerns exist about whether these Internet-based surveys are scientifically valid and how they are best conducted. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the widespread availability of the Web, e-mail was first explored as a survey mode. As with the Web, e-mail offers the possibility of nearly instantaneous transmission of surveys to recipients while avoiding any postal costs. Early e-mail were primarily ASCII text-based, with rudimentary formatting at best, which tended to limit their length and scope. The only significant advantage they offered over paper was a potential decrease in delivery and response Field Methods, Vol. 14 No. 4, 2002 347-367.


times, though some also hypothesized that the novelty of the new medium might enhance response rates (Parker, 1992; Zhang, 2000). The Web started to become widely available in the early to mid-1990s and quickly supplanted e-mail as the Internet survey medium of choice because it was easy to implement, it provided an improved interface with the respondent, and it offered the possibility of multimedia and interactive surveys containing audio and video. For convenience samples, the Web also offered a way around the necessity of having to know respondents’ e-mail addresses. As a result, “quick polls” and other types of entertainment surveys have become increasingly popular and widespread on the Web. Internet-based surveys are now in vogue—those conducted via the Web in particular—because of three assumptions: (a) Internet-based surveys are much cheaper to conduct; (b) Internet-based surveys are faster; and, (c) when combined with other survey modes, Internet-based surveys yield higher response rates than conventional survey modes by themselves. Yet, does the evidence in the literature confirm these assumptions? Are Internet-based surveys faster, better, cheaper, and/or easier than surveys conducted via conventional modes? What can we conclude about the strengths and current limitations of Internet-based surveying from...
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