Online Research Practice and Integrated Perspectives of Inquiry: Dis(advantages) of Web and E-Mail Surveys

Online Research Practice and Integrated Perspectives of Inquiry: Dis(advantages) of Web and E-Mail Surveys

Sergio Mauceri (Sapienza University of Rome, Italy), Maria Paola Faggiano (Sapienza University of Rome, Italy) and Luca Di Censi (Human Foundation Do, Italy & Think tank per l'Innovazione sociale, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8473-6.ch007
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The authors reconstruct the system of advantages and limits of e-mail data collection and web survey technique in social research; for this purpose, they examine in detail a set of studies that stimulate multiple reflections, both with reference to the overall value of survey research and on the role of the web for social sciences. The subject of all selected research designs is a complex social problem that involves the internet, both focus for observation and tool for research: voting intentions, social effects of the pandemic, the quality of university life, technology addiction. In each research experience, for different reasons—above all due to the lack of a single, self-sufficient data collection mode—, the authors favor the integration of research strategies: 1) mixed-modes of data collection, 2) follow-up panel web survey, 3) mixed methods research, 4) introduction of a preliminary pilot study, 5) multilevel survey.
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The origin of the term mode of data collection cannot be traced to a single source and has become part of the lexicon of research since the 1970s (Groves and Kahn, 1979). Proposing a brief excursus on modes of data collection, we have gone from post interviews to face-to-face interviews, which were the main modes of data collection from the 1940s (Lyberg and Kasprzyk, 1991), to the development and widespread adoption of telephone surveys, first in the United States and later in Europe and elsewhere since the 1970s, up to the web surveys of the early 1990s.

Since the 1990s the use of the Internet has been rapid and widely recognised; just four years after its introduction, 50 million people worldwide were using the web. The internet usage rate has been impressive and has eclipsed all other previous technologies; just think that to reach this saturation level radio took almost 30 years and television 13 years. In 2018, users connected to the Internet in the world surpassed the 4 billion people threshold: a historical datum that shows how today more than half of the world population is online (Report Global Digital, 2018). The impact of the web was immediate and, to a certain extent, researchers were caught unprepared, even though in recent years we have witnessed an explosion in the use of the web to collect information previously collected in other ways. The turning point came in the mid-1990s, with the introduction of Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML): the web became an interactive medium and participation in computer-based surveys was perceived as easy and non-intrusive, respecting the anonymity of the interviewees. Moreover, with the spread of electronic mail, web surveys have been recognised for their potential to reach a very large public, guaranteeing a higher response rate in considerably less time/costs compared to paper or postal surveys (Ebert et al., 2018, Kehoe and Pitkow, 1996; Schmidt, 1997).

Why should a researcher prefer to write an online questionnaire instead of using the proven pen and paper system or the different telephone interview methods? As mentioned, the use of online data collection is cheaper in terms of time and costs, as well as being more efficient in the data encoding phase. Indeed, using a computerised support database, the transcription time of the data coincides with the time that the participant takes to answer the questionnaire, since the operation of inserting the answer is automatic: in this way the errors of manual transcription of data are also reduced (Reis and Gosling, 2010; Vicente and Reis, 2010).

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