Online Data Collection: Strategies for Research

Article excerpt

Online data collection, through e-mail and Web-based surveys, is becoming an increasingly popular research methodology. In this article, the authors outline the benefits and limitations of this type of data collection to help researchers determine whether their data could be collected online in a way that retains the integrity of the data. A detailed procedure, including strategies to manage limitations, is given for researchers wishing to conduct their own online surveys.

**********

In an age of ever-advancing technology, Americans are becoming progressively more computer literate. More and more people have access to the Internet, and the Internet is fast becoming the communication method of choice for many Americans (Duffy, 2000). Researchers from many disciplines are starting to see the benefits of collecting data using the Internet, and increasingly, journals are publishing data that have been collected online (Schleyer & Forrest, 2000).

Despite this increased use of the Internet for data collection, there is little published research on the process of data collection online. That is, discipline-specific studies publish the results of their Web-based surveys in discipline-specific journals, but little information is available on the specifics of how Internet-based data collection can be accomplished. Thus, it is difficult for a researcher wishing to use this data collection method to find resources to use as guides.

A review of recent issues of the flagship journal of the American Counseling Association and the journals of its largest divisions and affiliates (Journal of Counseling & Development, The Family Journal, Counselor Education and Supervision, Journal of Mental Health Counseling, and Professional School Counseling) found that the publication of data collected online has not yet become standard in the field of counseling. In fact, since 1998, no articles have been published in any of these journals that explicitly state that data were collected from an e-mail-based or Web-based survey method. (One study by Niles, Akos, & Cutler in a 2001 issue of Counselor Education and Supervision used e-mail correspondence to conduct qualitative interviews with participants, although participants originally were contacted via postal mail.)

There is, however, an advantage to using Web-based surveys that make it a particularly appealing method for the counseling profession. The advantages of reduced time, lowered cost, ease of data entry, flexibility in format, and ability to capture additional response-set information are universal to Internet-based data collection in all fields. However, in the counseling profession, the additional benefit of access to populations that have not entered the mental health system (e.g., potential clients with mental health problems who have not yet accessed the system) may make online data collection particularly advantageous for counseling research.

It is possible that online data collection is not used in the field of counseling because of the limitations of this type of data collection, such as difficulties in obtaining a representative sample, low response rates, and problems with technology. These limitations are valid and pertinent to researchers in every field and are discussed in detail later in this article k also is possible that online data collection has not been used in the counseling literature because of a lack of models and training for this type of research methodology. Therefore, this article is intended to help provide a structure for researchers wishing to engage in this type of data collection.

Based on a review of the literature and the findings from a large-scale online study that we previously conducted (Wheaton & Granello, 2001), this article outlines the advantages and limitations of online data collection for the field of counseling and then describes a step-by-step how-to method for researchers wishing to conduct their own Web-based surveys. …