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The how, why and when of web surveys for the general population

This research project has been completed. Please contact a team member for further information.


The cost of conducting surveys has risen primarily as a result of declining participation rates and the extra work associated with trying to persuade people to take part. Telephone interviewing is also in decline as an effective fieldwork solution.

Recent years have seen a new drive to find alternative effective and affordable methods of data collection. It’s hoped that these new methods, in combination with traditional methods could reduce costs, improve coverage and also increase response rates.

Getting participants to complete their survey online is one new method of considerable interest to survey designers and managers. There are clear benefits in terms of convenience and cost saving.

However, many web-based surveys have flaws which limit their usefulness. There are concerns about measurement errors particular where mixed modes of data collection are used. In addition, not everyone has access to a computer and the internet at home, which would exclude a significant minority of the population from taking part.

Despite a perceived need for large-scale surveys to move to the web, the UK lags behind the international community, but is keen to catch up.

Project aims

The project aims to create a network of people working in the field to share knowledge and to set out a research agenda going forward.

The network will:

  • exchange knowledge
  • generate new thinking
  • work towards resolving the challenge of how, and to what extent, the web can be used to survey the general population

Data sources and methods

A group of 50 people from a wide range of institutions and expertise across the national and international survey research community will make up the network.

Three central themes have been identified:

  1. Designing surveys which ensures samples are representative of the general population
  2. How to engage participants in order to get a high response with unbiased and good quality data
  3. How to capture complex data on the web

Project activities include an opening conference to clarify issues and lines of enquiry, commissioning of specific papers and presentations, and a closing conference to debate each of the three central themes and to identify a research agenda.

Team members

Gerry Nicolaas

Head of Data Collection Methodology - National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)

Principal Investigator

Professor Peter Lynn

Professor of Survey Methodology - ISER - University of Essex


Lisa Calderwood

Senior Survey Manager - Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education


Professor Caroline Roberts

Director of the Technology Strategy Board-funded ‘Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network’ (ESKTN) - Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lausanne



  1. Web surveys for the general population: how, why and when?

    Gerry Nicolaas, Lisa Calderwood, Peter Lynn, et al.

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Photo credit: Understanding Society