Dawn-Marie Walker: The emergence of online research methods

Dawn Marie WalkerSince the internet erupted onto the scene in the 80s and 90s it has changed how we work and interact socially. Whereas before to communicate with someone in another part of the UK or world, it would require a phone call, letter, or a trip, now we can send instant messages, emails, or conduct “face to face” meetings via Skype or conferencing software. It is even changing our society and has given people unifying power, for example, Blackberry messaging was used in the UK riots this summer. Using the internet to conduct research is slowly emerging as a method, although it is still gaining an evidence base for validity and reliability, and ethical appropriateness.

Online research methods (ORMs) are innovative, economical, safe, and effective ways of collecting data in an efficient manner if appropriate for your study and participant sample. They can be used as a standalone method, or to support traditional research methods, such as online recruitment or consent procedure. They can also increase your publication output, as not only will you be able to publish the data regarding your hypothesis/research question, but because of its innovation, you may be able to publish a separate one about the using the method itself.

Historically ORMs were discounted for many research projects as it was thought that participants may not have access to the internet. However, with the advent of smartphones, and TVs with internet the coverage in the UK is almost complete. Currently in the UK only 9.2% of the population have never accessed the web. The barriers to using the internet as a research tool are slowly disappearing.

If one thinks of an ORM, most people think of online surveys; but these are only the tip of the iceberg. If you are conducting interviews or a focus group, it is possible to conduct these by either using emails or a messenger service, or by using video software such as Skype (which is free). Using an ORM in this way can reduce the cost of the project as there are no travel expenses incurred. It also opens up the possibility of recruiting a nationwide or international sample. Using an ORM to collect data allows you to show pictures or videos or even conduct quasi-experiments if relevant to your project. It is particularly useful when studying topics that are sensitive, such as self harm, as participants can maintain a feeling of anonymity, and it is known that participants disclose more online than in a face to face interviews or focus groups.

You may also wish to gather some rich qualitative data in an ethnographic manner from postings in the public domain about diseases, or disorders. Patients are becoming far more proactive in their health, and so chat rooms, newsgroups, blogs, and social networking sites can offer them a place for support and knowledge. The messages can give you a patient perspective for your project and you can post questions pertinent to your project on these forums.

Fielding N, Lee RM, Blank G, eds. Online research methods. London: Sage, 2008.

Dawn-Marie Walker is a lecturer in the University of Nottingham. Her main research interests lie in using innovative online methods for collecting data, and evaluating whether complementary medicine is efficacious or not for various diagnoses.