Paper Surveys

Written by Tara Peris
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Paper surveys are among the most straightforward ways to gather information. With increasing frequency, however, researchers are recognizing their methodological weaknesses, and putting forward a plea for more innovative forms of measurement. Although a staple to many forms of basic research, it is unlikely that, in and of themselves, paper surveys will be considered acceptable forms of measurement for much longer.

For many years, if you wanted to conduct a study, you sat down, wrote up a bunch of questions, and then found people to answer them. If data from your "pilot sample" proved statistically reliable, then you had yourself a decent questionnaire. You could, in effect, administer your paper survey to whomever you wished and then examine your results with confidence.

The Shift Away from Paper Surveys

A growing body of research suggests that, for some types of empirical questions, paper surveys may not produce meaningful information. In particular, studies requiring people to reflect or report on their own behaviors and attitudes may not benefit from standard surveys because of a tendency toward self-report bias. That is, you can pretty much count on your respondents to answer in socially acceptable (rather than honest) ways.

In addition to intentional efforts to respond in a favorable manner, there is evidence that most of us are not reliable informants when it comes to describing our own behavior. Sometimes, we simply lack the perspective to give an accurate, objective report. Difficulties like these undermine the utility of traditional surveys and underscore the need for supplementary forms of measurement.

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