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What is a survey?

Author: Andrea Glässel (Swiss Paraplegic Research)
Sources: 1) Fink A. The Survey Handbook. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications; 2002. 2) Carter R, Lubinsky J, Domholdt E. Rehabilitation Research: Principles and Applications. 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2010.
A survey is a special type of questionnaire carried out to find answers to research questions. For this purpose, the researchers ask a defined target group for their opinion, facts, behaviour patterns and other things, using different means, e.g. the telephone, online-surveys or questionnaires in paper form.

This article focuses on the survey as research method and form of questionnaire. Many results in the field of spinal cord injury (SCI) have been collected through surveys, some of which can also be found as short article here on “Research Corner".

What is a survey or a research survey?

A survey is a wide-spread research method used to obtain revealing information from certain people or a certain group of people that are of interest to the researchers (the so called target group). This includes their opinion, practical knowledge, facts, behaviour patterns or other information. Survey research is based on the information provided by the respondents themselves (the research subjects) and is collected e.g. by telephone, online-surveys, or questionnaires in paper form. The survey takes place at a given time (so called reference date) and can be repeated after a defined period of time to check the evolution of the analysed aspects (so called longitudinal study).
A survey also aims at collecting sociodemographic details such as age, gender, marital status and occupation. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, this makes it possible to specify the group of participants (so called sample) and on the other hand the data can hence be evaluated in relation to the answers collected in the survey. For example: in which manner were the questionnaires answered by men or women, young or elderly people and is there an explanation for that?
A survey requires some reflection on the group of participants in advance. Who should participate and how can these people be identified? For a survey it is essential to find as many participants as possible to achieve the most precise results possible. The participants have to be willing to answer the questions in a comprehensive, unbiased and honest manner.
Common forms of surveys are political surveys or market research surveys. The latter usually aim at finding out the consumers' opinion on certain products or services, e.g. the railway. Surveys are also carried out on a regular basis to collect information about the health of society. One example is the Swiss Health Survey:

How is a survey carried out?

The process usually starts with a research interest in a phenomenon which can be studied by means of a survey, whereby the exact formulation of the question is very important. There are two types of questions: closed questions where the participants can choose between given response options and open questions where the participants have to answer using their own words. One example for an open question taken from a Swiss survey on SCI is the following: “What are your biggest problems in everyday life with SCI?" (The results can be found soon in another article in the Research Corner).

Surveys can be carried out in different ways. Common forms are telephone interviews, sending out questionnaires in paper form, online-surveys (the questionnaire is completed online), and also personal interviews with the participants (e.g. surveys on the street or in the supermarket). All of the forms mentioned have both advantages and disadvantages that have to be taken into consideration when choosing one of them. The various forms may also be combined.

Surveys on paraforum

You can also participate in various surveys on SCI here in the Research Corner and thus support research in this field. Therefore we kindly ask you to share your practical experience regarding SCI with us by participating in these surveys. Your answers may help to detect research gaps. We are looking forward to your participation!

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