Library: Critical Tips for Online Researchers

Collecting data online is much easier and more efficient and than traditional methods. The following proven tips have helped PsychData customers gather their data online successfully.


Motivation: Because participants in online research typically participate on their own time and in private (as opposed to collecting from students in a lecture hall) you need to make sure that they have a good reason for participating to insure that they follow through.

Recruitment plans: If you are collecting from a specific audience (i.e. college students) you need to have your plan for recruitment firmly in place before beginning your data collection. Options include:

  • Psychology subject pool participants at your institution.
  • Use your networking contacts to find instructors who are willing to give extra credit for participation in your research. If you choose this option, keep in mind that you will need to track the identity of your participants in a way that preserves confidentiality. Time of the academic year can be very important with this method—participants need to be motivated to get extra-credit.
  • Be willing to give something back in return! Enrolling participants in a lottery of some kind (e.g., 4 $20 prizes) can help increase your level of participation.
  • Snow-ball samples: This is a good technique to use when you don't need a specific population and aren't concerned with who fills out your survey. Emailing your survey address to all of your friends and asking them to forward it and so on can often be very effective. BUT, be sure to have a back-up plan if your numbers aren't panning out.
  • More is better: Don't put all your eggs in one basket—while you may have a source of participants that sounds "just perfect", always have a backup ready to go.

Length of Survey

  1. Ask only those questions that you actually need answers to. Keep in mind that each question you ask translates into more time for your participants. If you are not giving anything in return, the shorter, the better.
  2. People are turned off by long surveys and are less likely to start and finish if the survey is too long. Longer surveys are generally best suited for an audience who is receiving something in return (i.e. class credit, money, etc.). Keep surveys as concise as possible. If you don't need the data, don't ask for it!

Know How To Handle Your Data!

You didn't learn how to ride a bike in five minutes, right? Well, if you are relatively new to handling computer data it will be critical for you to learn how to use the programs that will handle your data before you actually have your data in hand.

Be Prepared

Once a survey is up and running on the Internet in the form of web pages, it can be difficult and costly to make changes. You can loose or frustrate potential participants who try to access a web page that is down, throw your dataset out of whack by moving or changing question, or cause other problems. Therefore, be certain of all questions, response formats (i.e., likert-style), and directions before you move forward with putting your research online.

KISS: Keep It Simple Sweetheart

If you want your online research to work the right way for all of your participants (who are using a variety of computers and internet browsers), keep your project simple and straightforward. Avoid flashy presentations, complex layouts, and keep your goal in mind—data.

Be Empathetic in Your Design

When you are designing your survey, think about it from your participant's point of view. Would you be willing to answer that question online? Could it be phrased differently? Since they can't ask for clarification, is the question clear? Do you need to anticipate questions or confusion and provide an explanation in the survey itself? It is always a good idea to have someone, who is unfamiliar with your research, proof-read your survey for errors, clarity, and flow.

Multi-Site Data Collection

Don't miss a golden opportunity! Online research allows you to collect data from anywhere in the country, and many parts of the world. If you are interested in a diverse sample, you can get it online if you plan ahead, make contacts, and network.

Choose Your Sample Carefully

While it may seem obvious, some populations are simply not appropriate for online data collection. Don't try to force an unwilling or difficult-to-get population into an online format. Square pegs and round holes don't equal finished research!

Timing, Timing, Timing!

Perhaps this is obvious to some, but it is well worth restating. It is very important that you think ahead with regard to timing. Putting your research online is the first step in online data collection. Here are some important factors to consider:

  • How long will it take you to gather your materials and get your survey up and running? When should you start, what is the critical window for participants, what is your deadline to have your survey up and running?
  • Some participants work better under a deadline (i.e. by next Friday at 5pm), others under an open invitation—which works best for you?
  • How and when will your participants learn about your survey? For example, if you want to survey people who download materials from your website, when are they most likely to visit? If you are emailing them, will they be checking their email and will they be motivated to respond?
  • What will be happening in the lives of your participants? In college student samples the end of the semester can be a great time to collect data (especially if extra-credit is involved) because they are interested in getting a better grade. Keep their point of view in mind at all times.


"We would definitely recommend PsychData to anyone, professional or student, who is conducting Internet based research."

—Rene Paulson, Ph.D.,
   Texas Woman's University

"Our experience with PsychData has far exceeded even my early-on optimism about how online research could benefit our professional training."

—Joseph W. Ciarrocchi, Ph.D.,
   Professor & Chairperson,
   Graduate Programs in Pastoral Counseling,
   Loyola College in Maryland