Internet Survey Lab


The Internet Survey Lab at the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine (CBSSM) has extensive experience in developing, programming and conducting survey research using Internet-based methodologies.  Directed by Dr. Brian Zikmund-Fisher, the lab consists of a dedicated programming staff led by lead developer Mark Dickson that uses our custom survey engine (programmed in Ruby on Rails) to efficiently create and launch multiple surveys each year.  Our engine is designed to facilitate the programming of complex experimental designs (beyond the capabilities of commercially-available survey applications) and/or use the graphical and interactive capabilities of the Internet to do things that would be impossible to implement in a paper-and-pencil survey.

Our original expertise was developed as a key part of the iterative research approach adopted by Dr. Peter Ubel for his recently renewed National Cancer Institute-funded grant on "Identifying and Reducing Cognitive Biases in Patient Decision Aids." However, we have extended and refined our approach over time, and virtually all CBSSM investigators are involved in some form of Internet survey research. Our lab benefits from the multi-disciplinary environment at CBSSM and in particular from our ongoing collaborations with Dr. Mick Couper (Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research), one of the world's foremost experts in Internet survey research. Dr. Couper recently published Designing Effective Web Surveys (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Why We Use the Internet

A key advantage of Internet surveys (shared with Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI) surveys) is that they can shape and direct a user's experience in response to computer generated randomization and/or respondents' own answers to questions earlier in the survey. Additionally, page and answer order can be truly randomized as appropriate to limit cognitive biases. The unique advantage of Internet surveys, however, is that many different types of stimuli can be randomized or varied; static visual images, movies, or sounds can all be used in addition to text. Furthermore, the nature of the WWW browser interface enables user-directed interactivity, such as user-adjustable risk communication graphics, that provide unique opportunities for both knowledge communication and response assessment.

Using the Internet to conduct survey research is also very efficient: we can develop and test surveys in only a few months' time, and once a survey is ready, large scale data collection (e.g., 1500-3000 completed surveys) can be completed in only 2-3 weeks.  Such surveys can also be cost effective, since while significant effort goes into development, creation, and testing of the survey, almost no personnel effort is required for data collection, entering, coding, or cleaning.  In addition, oftentimes several small surveys can be combined into a single instrument, creating further efficiencies.

Many of our studies use large, demographically diverse samples obtained through commercial survey research firms. This methodology allows us to tailor the population being surveyed on multiple demographic variables (e.g., sampling only women age 40-75 for a study about breast cancer treatments) and provides us with ample statistical power to conduct multi-factorial experimental tests. Furthermore, the use of randomized designs ensures high internal validity for the research despite the use of an Internet-only sample.

CBSSM Surveys

CBSSM has had considerable success using this methodology, publishing multiple manuscripts in highly regarded peer-reviewed journals. Studies that have used this methodology have addressed a variety of topics, including:

  • The use of pictographs to display risk (2008, 2008) including in comparison to other graphical formats (2008).
    Note: to create your own pictographs, see our online
    pictogenerator application.
  • Misprediction of happiness between younger and older adults (2005)
  • Elicitation of utility and willingness to pay (2007, 2007, 2008)
  • Research ethics, e.g., participation of mentally vs. medically ill in research (2005)
  • Risk communications that emphasize incremental risks instead of absolute risks (2008)
  • Simplifying risk communications about adjuvant therapy options (2008).
  • Effect of risk labels on prenatal screening decisions (2007).
  • Time-insensitivity in people's understanding of survival curves (2005, 2007)
  • Self-other discrepancies in medical decisions (2006, 2008)

Other CBSSM surveys use the Internet to facilitate complex data collection tasks in face-to-face interview studies. Examples of such studies include ongoing research that uses a day reconstruction method to assess patient quality of life and a survey of patients awaiting transplant that asked each patient how much risk of graft failure they would be willing to accept.

Contact Us

For questions about our methods or inquiries about potential Internet survey research collaborations, please contact Brian Zikmund-Fisher at