Preventing Data Fabrication in Telephone Survey Research

By Smith, Philip B.; MacQuarrie, Colleen R. et al. | Journal of Research Administration, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Preventing Data Fabrication in Telephone Survey Research


Smith, Philip B., MacQuarrie, Colleen R., Herbert, Rosemary J., Cairns, David L., Begley, Lorraine H., Journal of Research Administration


Introduction

A research team at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, discovered that the data collection company hired to conduct telephone interviews fabricated 23% of the data sets. To prevent a recurrence, the team developed a menu of options which research administrators and others concerned with research ethics can disseminate to program directors and researchers within their organizations for application pre, during, and post data collection. Menu items relate to (i) the organizational structure of data collection companies; (ii) strategies in developing contracts with companies; (iii) operational procedures; (iv) data/record review; (v) budget; and (vi) national or international standards.

Research planners are encouraged to incorporate suggestions from the menu of options. Funders are encouraged both to require and to fund quality assurance initiatives. A call for professionalization and accreditation of data collection companies aims to address quality assurance issues in survey research.

In 2003 at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, the Smoke-Free Homes Research Project was jeopardized by a survey firm hired to conduct telephone interviews. The research featured a baseline population survey of 1,410 households in the first year, a subsequent social marketing intervention, and, in the second year, a post-test of another 1,410 household interviews. Challenges to data collection included strict inclusion criteria, a small population base in both intervention and control sites, and requirements to complete data collection within a one-month period each year.

The survey firm contracted to conduct the interviews delivered the stipulated number of data sets on time. During an examination of the data, in year two, inexplicable consistencies in text portions of a number of surveys raised questions about their veracity. It became evident that many interviews were manufactured by copying and pasting the whole or parts of genuine interviews to create the number specified in the contract. A re-examination of year-one data uncovered similar, but more cunningly concealed, fabricated data. In all, 23% of surveys were found to be fabricated. Fortunately, an unexpectedly large effect size meant that, even with the loss of these data, this particular study was not underpowered.

There is an emerging literature within professional research organizations (Johnson, Parker & Clements, 2001; "Methods of Interviewer Fraud Detection", 2003), in conference presentations (Caspar, 2003; Qi, 2002), and academic publications (Marshall, 2000) that concentrates on the interviewer as the site of fraudulent activity. This narrow focus can blind researchers to the possibility that fraud can be perpetrated by others in the data handling hierarchy.

This paper draws the attention of the whole research community to the reality of survey fraud originating beyond the interviewer level. Researchers need to incorporate, in survey planning, adequate procedures for the prevention and detection of telephone survey fraud. We present a menu of options citing advantages and disadvantages under six themes: (i) organizational structure of data collection companies, (ii) strategies in developing contracts with companies, (iii) operational procedures, (iv) data/record review, (v) budget, and (vi) national or international standards.

Results

I. Organizational Structure of Data Collection Organizations

Data quality assurance can be enhanced if researchers avoid contracting with companies where managers and staff are also engaged in for-profit work such as telephone promotions, sales, and customer service. Two options exist.

A. Develop In-house, University-based Survey Centres.

Advantages: University-based survey centres operate within a research culture. Research, knowledge development, and discovery are valued in their own right, and are seen as more important than generation of profit and other business motivations. …

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