Web-based survey emerged as an important research methodology in the past two decades, its use further increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Need for quick data collection and information processing during coronavirus outbreak and stringent conditions of social distancing and lockdown significantly affected research culture. Several researchers turning toward safer, rapid, and reliable research methodology and adopting web-based surveys as a research tool, it is pertinent to be mindful of various technical and ethical aspects, effective use, and limitations of web-based surveys to uphold the standard of research work.
Keywords: COVID-19, online survey, research methodology, web-based survey
| Introduction|| |
The Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic is one of the greatest threats to humankind of modern history. The pandemic has developed conditions perhaps unfavorable to the traditional research methods. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global change in research pattern has been noticed in term of the quantitative and qualitative aspect of research perhaps due to change in the pattern of research funding and grants, institutional policies, change in the pattern of overall processing of articles, it almost paved new culture of research, reflected by the overwhelming numbers of researches published in the past few months.,,
One of such changes is the use of web-based surveys in research, the numbers of web-based articles published in the past 6-months indicate strategic advantages of it over traditional surveys during the pandemic. Moreover, health professionals across the world are now resorting to web-based surveys for research. The time duration between the planning of the survey and its publication is considerably less which is particularly important to share scientific information, especially during the time of crisis. A minimal understanding of perception, belief, knowledge, and physical and mental health problems can provide ground to new studies and interventions when other data are not available. This article aims to discuss advantages and challenges, the factors that influence response rate, ethical issues, and guidelines of web-based surveys that researchers should be mindful of especially at the time when web-based surveys are being resorted to as one of the most commonly used research tools.
Conventionally, primary data collection from remote locations was carried out through postal mails or telephones and the data were manually tabulated/fed into the software for analysis. Later, with the advent of the Internet, E-mail-based surveys became popular during the 1990s, in which surveys were directly E-mailed to the participants. Online survey methodology has evolved considerably in the last two decades. Web-based surveys, in which the survey is hosted on a website, participants directly fill out responses at the webpage, and the same are submitted through the online platform. The notable advantage of the web-based survey over E-mail-based survey is to get data recorded immediately by online software.
Currently, online surveys can be conducted using various commercially available platforms. SurveyMonkey®, Google forms, and QualtricsXM are some of the commonly used platforms by health professionals. They are available in free as well as paid versions. The paid version usually comes with a range of services such as automated data collection, skip patterns, automated reminders to participate, downloadable response collections compatible to use with the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (IBM® SPSS® Statistic Software;IBM Corporation New Orchard Road Armonk, NY 10504) or Statistical Analysis System making it an attractive and less expensive research tool.
Web-based surveys are flexible, can be used with social media platforms such as Twitter®, Facebook®, and WhatsApp®. Surveys can be advertized through social media platforms and the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) link of informative video can be embedded in the messages sent. This feature-rich quality makes it a powerful, time efficient, and cost-effective research tool of today. The reliability and validity of online surveys have often been questioned, but in practice, it seems to be comparable to that of paper-pencil-based surveys.
Web-based survey amid COVID-19 pandemic: Opportunities
The advantages of web-based surveys have been noticed even more at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. This fact reflects in the number and the speed with which web-based surveys have been published in the past 6 months. Apart from the general advantage of web-based surveys, the most important advantage during the pandemic is the ease and speed with which data can be collected without physical contact, something that was seriously required at the time of COVID-19 crisis. Web-based surveys are perhaps the only way to palpate people's belief, perception, knowledge, physical, and mental problems as well as views related to social, political, and economic conditions. They can provide ground for further research and interventions, especially when other data are not available. Moreover, recruitment using short messaging service (SMS), E-mail and social media platforms such as Twitter®, Facebook®, and WhatsApp® further help to cover a wider geographical region and a larger sample size and make it possible to reach the population which is otherwise “hard-to-reach” such as sexual minorities and veterans with post-traumatic disorders.,,, Participants are free to respond at a convenient time at their home without going out, especially when most of the countries including India have imposed lockdown. Moreover, retention of participants in a longitudinal study is much easier even if there is a change in the locality., A web-based survey is cheaper, requires no physical laboratory space, smaller or no incentive costs for participation as well as lesser funding issues to the institute. The use of multimedia modalities such as embedded video, link, informative webpage, attractive advertizing, and animations provided an extra edge over paper-pencil-based surveys. The use of online focus groups and chat rooms for participants' interaction can also make it attractive for qualitative research. Moreover, web servers are also capable of collecting large amounts of data from participants who are accessing the online survey at the same time.
Web-based survey amid COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges
Web-based surveys attracted several criticisms, some are general, and others are more pertinent to the current pandemic situation. In general, the reliability and validity of web-based surveys have often been questioned in comparison with offline surveys. One of the most significant disadvantages of web-based surveys is the non-uniform coverage of Internet resulted in two types of coverage bias, first not all people have access to the World Wide Web (www), further all who have access to www not have equal chance to participate due to range of technical problems such as poor connectivity, power failure and network problem leading to selection bias. An E-mail-based invitation often goes unnoticed due to spam block, it has been seen that only 30% of recipients respond to a single E-mail without follow-up., Issue of anonymity and privacy is complex and multi-layered. Participants' dishonesty in responses has long been debated and researchers have to rely on participants' honesty. Online research also raises new questions regarding what constitutes identifiable information; E-mail addresses or Internet Protocol (IP) addresses may be considered recognizable. A poorly designed survey attracts a host of other issues such as selection bias, poor response, and duplication of data. Further, the rate of response depends upon several factors such as sponsorship, content, type of questionnaire, sequence and order of the questions, method of sampling, length of the survey, mode of delivery, design, scrolling style, background, graphics, logos, and drop-down boxes any many more influences response rates.,, Hence, a certain amount of technical competency of the researchers is required to come over these shortcomings. In general, surveys that are sponsored by academic or governmental agencies have better response rates. Respondents are more likely to respond to an interesting, more salient topic such as COVID-19. The other important challenge is the sampling in the web-based survey, there are two types of sampling, probability and nonprobability sampling. Probability sampling uses random selection to select participants, for example, E-mail address randomly selected from a list, which corresponds to greater generalizability while, nonprobability sampling involves self-selected polls and volunteer-opt-in panels, which do not have equal probabilities of selecting individuals of the target population, hence the results are nongeneralizable. The effect of sampling method on response rate is not well known. The contact method is important, and there is increasing use of different platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic such as SMSs, WhatsApp™, Facebook™ Twitter™, and Instagram™ along with the traditional E-mail. A mixed-method of contact appears to enhance response rate but results in duplication of entries. To prevent multiple responses, a manual login can be used, where responders have to log in using both username and password to enter into URL link; semi-automatic login where login requires only username or password; automatic login, in which a unique identifier is embedded into the URL, so that respondents do not need to enter the password to gain access. The use of increasing social media advertisements campaigning also being noticed during COVID-19 pandemic for large-scale surveys but the effectivity of such strategy yet to be validated. The use of incentives for web-based survey is used to boost the response rate but the researchers need to be aware of the ethical aspects of it. If an incentive is used, researchers should be able to communicate openly the conditions in the initial contact of the participant and it should be delivered promptly as promised.
A recent article on web-based survey pointing out the change in the culture of research.
A word of caution
Several journals, research agencies, and institutions globally are actively facilitating research related to COVID-19 and under given context, web-based research seems to be the only feasible, rapid, and cost-effective method. While there may be a need to undertake research quickly, this should not compromise scientific validity and the need to uphold ethical requirements., Ethical guidelines for online research are essentially the same as offline research including privacy., Some of the specific recommendations by checklist for reporting results of Internet E-surveys are helpful. Data safety cannot be assured. Researchers must avoid open invitation links on social media being made available to entire populations, use prenotification, username, and password-protected links, providing adequate information and consent are some measures that could help. Research and academic bodies may have to come up with specific guidelines for such web-based surveys.
| Conclusion|| |
Web-based research is quickly emerging as a promising research tool in the present ambiance of a global health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of health professionals, social scientists now experimenting with various web-based surveys with different social media platforms. Therefore, researchers need to develop an appreciation of the potential and limitations of web-based survey research, acquire fundamental technical expertise to build such surveys, and most importantly to be cognizant of the ethical issues involved in such research.
Thanks to Mrs. Sonam Pal, MTech, Computor Application (CA), for helping in understanding technical aspect of web-based research.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, GE Road, Tatibandh, Raipur - 492 099, Chhattisgarh
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None