There are a variety of methodological approaches for people interested in conducting research. The selection of a research approach depends on a number of factors. This includes the purpose of the research, the type of research questions that need to be answered, and the availability of resources. Thus, survey research is an approach to conducting research. The investigator should critically assess the appropriateness of the conclusions of studies employing survey research.

What is Survey Research

Survey research is defined as “the collection of information from a sample of individuals through their answers to questions” (Check & Schutt, 2012, p. 160). This type of research allows for a variety of methods for recruiting participants, collecting data, and using various instrumentation methods. Survey research may use:

Quantitative research strategies. For example, using questionnaires with numerically qualified items)

Qualitative research strategies. For example, using open-ended questions.

Both strategies, i.e. mixed methods.

Therefore, surveys are frequently used in social and psychological research. They are used to describe and explore human behavior.

Given this range of options in conducting survey research, it is imperative that the potential for bias in survey research be understood. In the same way, it is necessary to understand the techniques tested to reduce bias, in order to draw appropriate conclusions about the information reported in this way.

Background to Survey Research

For decades, information has been obtained from individuals and groups through the use of survey research. It can range from asking a few questions aimed at individuals in a corner to get information related to behaviors and preferences, to a more rigorous study using multiple valid and reliable instruments. Among the most common examples of less rigorous surveys are marketing or political studies of consumption patterns and public opinion polls.

Survey research has historically included the collection of large-scale population-based data. The main objective of this type of survey research was to obtain information describing the characteristics of a large sample of individuals of interest relatively quickly. Large census surveys that obtain information reflecting demographic and personal characteristics and consumer opinion polls are the main examples. These surveys were often conducted by mail and were intended to describe the demographic characteristics of individuals or obtain opinions on which to base programs or products for a population or group.

More recently, survey research has become a rigorous approach to research. It has scientifically proven strategies that detail:

Who to include (representative sample).

What and how to distribute (survey method).

When to start the survey and track people who don’t respond (reduce the error of lack of response,

This is done in order to ensure a high-quality research process and result. Currently, the term survey may reflect a range of research objectives, sampling and recruitment strategies, data collection tools, and survey administration methods.


The objective of sampling strategies in survey research is to obtain a sufficient sample that is representative of the population of interest. It is often not possible to collect data from the entire population of interest (e.g., all individuals with lung cancer). Therefore, a subset of the population or sample is used to estimate population responses (for example, individuals with lung cancer currently receiving treatment). A large random sample increases the likelihood that the sample responses accurately reflect the entire population. To draw accurate conclusions about the population, the sample must include individuals with characteristics similar to the population.

Therefore, it is necessary to correctly identify the population of interest (for example, individuals with lung cancer currently receiving treatment versus all individuals with lung cancer). Ideally, the sample should include individuals who reflect the predicted population in terms of all population characteristics (e.g., sex, socioeconomic characteristics, experience of symptoms) and contain a similar distribution of individuals with those characteristics. Fujimori et al. (2014), for example, were interested in the population of oncologists. The authors obtained a sample of oncologists from two hospitals in Japan. These participants may or may not have characteristics similar to all oncologists in Japan.

Strategies in attracting participants

Strategies for attracting participants may affect the adequacy and representativeness of the sample obtained. The use of various recruitment strategies can help to improve sample size and ensure adequate coverage of the target population. For example, if a survey investigator intends to obtain a sample of individuals with breast cancer that is representative of all individuals with breast cancer in the United States, the researcher will want to use recruitment strategies that recruit both women and men, individuals from rural and urban settings, individuals who receive and do not receive active treatment. etc.

Because of the difficulty of obtaining representative samples from a large population, researchers may focus the population of interest on a subset of individuals (for example, women with stage III or IV breast cancer). Large census surveys require extremely large samples to adequately represent the characteristics of the population, as they are intended to represent the entire population.

Data Collection Methods

Survey research can use a variety of data collection methods, the most common being questionnaires and interviews.

The Questionnaires

Questionnaires can be self-administered or administered by a professional, can be administered individually or in groups, and usually include a series of items that reflect the objectives of the research. Questionnaires may include demographic questions in addition to valid and reliable research tools. It is useful to the reader when authors describe the content of the survey questionnaire so that the reader can interpret and evaluate the potential for validity errors (e.g., items or instruments that do not measure what they intend to measure) and reliability (e.g., items or instruments that do not measure a construct consistently). There are useful examples in the literature of articles describing survey instruments.

Questionnaires can be submitted on paper and mailed to participants, delivered in electronic format via email or an Internet-based program, such as SurveyMonkey. There can also be a combination of both, giving the participant the option to choose the method they prefer.

Interviews as a method to supplement information

Conducting interviews is another method of data collection used in survey research. Interviews can be conducted by telephone, computer or in person and have the advantage of visually identifying the interviewee’s nonverbal response(s). The question can then be clarified. An interviewer can use polling comments to learn more about a question or topic and can ask for clarification on an unclear answer. Interviews can be expensive and time-consuming, making them relatively inexpensive for large samples.

Some authors advocate the use of mixed methods for survey research when no method is adequate to address the intended research objectives. This can reduce the potential for measurement error and non-response, and to better adapt the study methods to the intended sample. For example, a mixed-method research approach may begin with the distribution of a questionnaire and follow-up with telephone interviews to clarify unclear survey responses. Mixed methods can also be used when visual or hearing impairments prevent a person from filling out a questionnaire or participating in an interview.

Combining Methods

Using a combination of survey management methods can help ensure better sample coverage. That is, that all individuals in the population have a chance to be included in the sample. This reduces the coverage error. For example, if a researcher only used a questionnaire delivered over the Internet, individuals without access to a computer would be excluded from participation. Self-administered questionnaires by mail, group or internet have a relatively low cost and are practical for a large sample.

Dillman et al. (2014) have described and tested a design method adapted for survey research. Improve the visual appeal and graphs of surveys by using an appropriate font size for respondents. Items should be sorted logically without creating an involuntary response bias and clearly arranging the items on each page can increase the response rate to electronic questionnaires. Paying attention to these and other issues in electronic questionnaires can help reduce measurement error (i.e., lack of validity or reliability) and help ensure a better response rate.

Example of Survey Research

Fujimori et al. (2014) described the use of survey research in a study on the effect of communication skills training for oncologists on oncologist and patient outcomes. For example, you can consider the performance and confidence of the oncologist and the distress, satisfaction and confidence of the patient. A sample of 30 oncologists from two hospitals was obtained. Although the authors provided a power analysis that concluded an adequate number of oncologist participants to detect differences between baseline and follow-up scores, the study conclusions may not be generalizable to a wider population of oncologists. Oncologists were randomly assigned to an intervention group (i.e., communication skills training) or a control group (i.e., no training).

Fujimori et al. (2014) chose a quantitative approach to collect data from participating oncologists and patients regarding study outcome variables. Numerical self-report scores were used to measure oncologist confidence and patient distress, satisfaction and confidence. Oncologists’ confidence was measured with two instruments, each of which used 10-point Likert rating scales.

Scale Used

To measure the patient’s distress, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) was used. It has proven its validity and reliability in various populations, including people with cancer. Patient satisfaction and confidence were measured using numerical rating scales from 0 to 10. The numerical ratings of the observers were used to measure the oncologist’s performance in terms of his communication skills. They were also based on a videotaped interaction with a standardized patient. Participants completed the same questionnaires at baseline and at follow-up.

The authors clearly describe what data were collected from all participants. Additional information was also provided on how the questionnaires were distributed (i.e. electronically, by mail), the environment in which the data were collected (e.g. home, clinic), and the design of the survey instruments (e.g. visual attractiveness, format, content, arrangement of items) would help the reader to draw conclusions about the potential for measurement error and non-response. The authors describe conducting a follow-up phone call or mail-in inquiry for the unanswered, using the adapted design of Dillman et al. (2014) for the follow-up of the survey research may have reduced the error of non-response.


Survey research is a useful and legitimate approach to research that has clear benefits in helping to describe and explore variables and constructs of interest. Survey research, like all research, has the potential for a variety of sources of error, but there are several strategies to reduce the potential for error. Advanced professionals who know the potential sources of error and strategies to improve survey research can better determine how and whether the findings of a survey research study apply to practice.

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Bibliographic References

Check J., Schutt R. K. Survey research. In: J. Check, R. K. Schutt., editors. Research methods in education. Thousand Oaks, CA:: Sage Publications; 2012. pp. 159–185.

Dillman D. A., Smyth J. D., Christian L.M. Internet, phone, mail, and mixed-mode surveys: The tailored design method. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2014.

Fujimori Maiko, Shirai Yuki, Asai Mariko, Kubota Kaoru, Katsumata Noriyuki, Uchitomi Yosuke. Effect of communication skills training program for oncologists based on patient preferences for communication when receiving bad news: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of clinical oncology : official journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. 2014; 32:2166–2172.

You may also be interested in: Types and Methods of Interviews in Research

Understanding and evaluating research through surveys

Understanding and evaluating research through surveys

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