survey for scientific research
Survey for scientific research

How to write a survey for scientific research? I am writing this article because several students ask me to supervise their master thesis using survey as a research methodology. Sometimes they see it as an “easy way out” of their thesis. In this article I am summarizing some of the core messages of an old article from Alain Pinsonneault and Kenneth L. Kraemer in the hope that it clarifies some aspects of this method of conducting research. Maybe you will use these suggestions when writing your research proposal or when conducting your study. Independently on the stage of your research, you could use them to critically assess the quality of what you are doing and use the feedback in the next iteration.

Most common problems in a survey research include:

  1. Use of a single-method design where multiple methods are needed.
  2. Use of an unsystematic and/or inadequate sampling procedure.
  3. Low response rates.
  4. Inadequate alignment/linkage between units of analysis and respondents.
  5. Over-reliance on cross-sectional surveys where longitudinal surveys are really needed.

What is a survey for scientific research?

You can define it as “the act of gathering information about the characteristics, actions, or opinions of a large group of people referred to as a population.” In other words, your ultimate goal is to advance scientific knowledge. Moreover, doing a research survey is different from other types of surveys such as marketing surveys, opinion surveys and political polls.

Survey conducted for research purposes has three distinct characteristics:

  • The purpose is to produce quantitative descriptions of the phenomena that you want to observe in the population
  • Structured and predefined questions are the main way of collecting this information
  • You collect this information by sampling your population in a way that is sufficient for generalizing the findings of your study

The research that you are conducting must have very clearly defined independent and dependent variables as a specific model of the expected relationships that are tested against the observations of the phenomena. Consequently, you should consider a survey research when:

  • The central question is “what/how/why is happening?”
  • Controlling the variable is not possible or desirable
  • You want to study the phenomena in its natural setting
  • The phenomena occur in current time or happened recently

What is the purpose of a survey for scientific research?

Normally, your research belongs to one of the 3 following categories: exploration, description or explanation.

  • Exploration refers to the act of becoming more familiar with the topic or trying out preliminary concepts. Put careful attention on discovering/defining what concepts to measure and how to measure them best. In other words, it is a way to elicit a wide variety of responses from individuals with varying viewpoints in a loosely structured manner as the basis for designing a refined version of your research.
  • Description refers to survey as a way to discover what situations, events, attitudes, or options are present in a population. The main concern of the researchers is to describe a distribution and to compare it with distributions of subgroups of the population. Usually you use this technique to ascertain facts instead of testing theories. In other words, you would like to understand whether common perceptions of the facts are or are not at odds with reality.
  • Explanation refers to the act of testing a theory or a causal relation. In other words, you are interested in the relationships between variables. Consequently, you should be able to form theoretically grounded expectations about the relationships between variables. For example, you will be able to say that A influences B in a positive or a negative manner. A more refined survey may also try to establish why the relationship exists.

How do you consider time in designing your research survey?

In short, cross-sectional surveys explicitly exclude the time dimension in the investigation. At the same time, longitudinal surveys do exactly the opposite. You may want to use a cross-sectional approach if you can safely generalize findings and extend them in time. On the other hand, if you are considering examining a dynamic process or a particular event, a longitudinal design is more appropriate.

Who/what is your unit of analysis?

In other words, who or what are you addressing in the survey? Maybe it is an individual or a group or a department or an organization etc. People are not necessarily the only unit of interest, but you may also consider an application, a system, a group of applications, or phases of a development project. Finally, in some cases multiple units of analysis may co-exist and you may need different questions per different unit.

What is your sampling procedure?

When you are analyzing a particular population you want to be sure that the units that you are selecting do not introduce biases into your study. In other words, it is the choice of the sample frame that constitutes a representative subset of the population that you are considering. This video gives a set of examples of the common mistakes when considering sampling:

How are you collecting your data?

In a survey for scientific research, individuals that respond to the questionnaire are your units of analysis. However, in some cases, you may need to aggregate people into groups, departments etc. Therefore, you must decide a proper criteria that takes into account that this macro unit represents the opinions of multiple people. You may also want to put attention to the data collection method as different methods trigger different response rates as well as different kind of responses. Therefore, extra attention to how data have been gathered is important in order to ensure that you are actually comparing “apple with apple”.

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In summary

I hope that these points will be helpful for self-reflecting when you will need to decide what your research is going to cover and if a survey is actually what you would like to do. Do now choose a survey for the wrong reasons (i.e. an “easy way out” of a master thesis). It is not as easy as it may look like. There are several common pit falls, and I hope that you will now be able to recognize them and act accordingly.

This article (Get the basic of doing a survey for scientific research purposes) is part of the miniseries on how to do a good thesis, you can see the full list of posts at the following links:

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