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Online Research

Review of the current literature, with an emphasis on technical details

I have presented this paper in August of 2005 as part of me finishing my psychology study.
I currently work as a developer of browser-based, internet and intranet applications.


First, the many advantages and disadvantages that are currently associated with online research will be addressed in the chapters Benefits and Costs. This division was made in an attempt to give a clear overview of all the pros and cons; but as we will see, some of the Benefits are listed under Costs too (as they can also have drawbacks); and some of the costs don’t need to be costs at all. After having reviewed the benefits and costs we’ll look at some Differences that can be found between online research and the traditional methods, that couldn’t be listed in the previous chapters. And from there we’ll move on to the last chapters that deal with issues typical of online research, the biggest one being Design - an issue that has become increasingly popular and comes with its own set of problems and possibilities. Finally, this paper will come to a conclusion that will once more give a brief summary and emphasizes the need for technical expertise within this new form of research.


Among the seemingly endless possibilities that the internet provides, a new alternative for doing research also came into existence in the form of online surveys. While some psychologists embraced this new technology almost instantly others remained sceptic. And indeed, if we look at the literature it seems that this new form of research has both benefits as costs. The literature on this topic, as this new phenomenon itself, appears to be still in its infancy. Especially when viewed from a technical perspective: many mistakes are being made. Many articles and papers have been written that claim (implicitly or even explicitly) to present the reader with all the dos and don’ts that are currently known; but the more I read, the more it became apparent to me that a really thorough overview doesn’t really exist. And that most of the ones that have been written were clearly not done by someone with technical expertise on the subject, leaving a lot of dangerous gaps.

In writing this paper I hope to achieve two main goals: one is to give a thorough overview of what has been published so far, the other is to both comment on that from a more technical point of view as well as (also from a technical point of view) pointing out possible pitfalls and recommendations that cannot be found in the literature yet. I will not make the claim that the overview presented is a complete one: even when I was finishing this paper I kept finding new studies that shed new lights. But on the same time it also strengthened my belief that – if not complete – at least it is thorough, as the basic outlines all seem defined.

The way this paper is structured might be a bit confusing for some at the beginning. One could argue that it would have been more clear had I started by explaining what online research is, how to put it into practice and from there move on to the differences between online research and its traditional counterparts and the more specific details one has to keep in mind. This paper, however, is aimed at psychologists / researchers who are at the least familiar with doing (traditional) research, and who are interested to learn (more) about online research, or already do online research and want to be kept up to date. I have therefore structured this paper in such a way, that for the interested it should become clear fairly soon if this technique is something they want to put into practice (the chapters on benefits and costs will point out the advantages and disadvantages in such a way it should become obvious whether it will be useful or not), so after that they can decide to stop there or read on. It will then deal with more specific issues related to the subject, to end with information that should help the enthusiastic to get started. For the practitioners the first two chapters are probably - to a greater or lesser extent - well known territory, but hopefully also bare some interesting new insights. The following chapters (probably without the exception of ‘how to conduct a web-survey’ though) should be the most interesting - as has been said, they go into more detail.

For these reasons I’ve also decided not to elaborate too much on the techniques of the traditional methods (in comparison to online research). It would make this paper very lengthy and likely bore the intended audience, as they are already familiar with them. And apart from that, many great books have already been written on that subject, so those who are interested I’d like to refer to, for example: Survey Methods in Social Investigation (C.A. Moser, G. Kalton, 1958)

A final note on the structure and its contents: Ethics is another facet of internet research that comes with its own new problems and therefore needs careful consideration. The lack of experimenter control and privacy issues (See for example O’Neil (1999) or Cho & LaRose (1999); although both articles are a bit old [given the rapid changes that are associated with the internet and its use] especially the latter exposes a lot of privacy issues and concludes that it is a more sensitive issue for Internet surveys than for conventional survey media. It also includes very comprehensive list of recommendations for researchers) are but two examples that should make it clear that internet research differs enough from traditional methods to be very cautious when doing research online. However, this issue is beyond the scope of the current paper and is therefore not being discussed here.

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