[Click Here]: Collecting data on sexual violence online

Chantal Hermann

Collecting data online is an attractive option for researchers – it can allow for quick access to a large number of participants with varying demographics, resulting in large more representative samples in research. Participants may also feel a greater sense of anonymity that can increase honesty in responding. Furthermore, potential participants may be more likely to participate because it is easier to complete an online survey than participating in research in person. So there are a number of benefits to collecting data online, making it an attractive option for researchers.

How do you collect data (on sexual violence) online?

1) Decide on a program to create and run your survey with.

There are a couple of things to think about if you would like to collect data online; the first is deciding on a program to create and run your online survey with. There are a number of different programs available for this, some popular choices include: Qualtrics (, Survey Monkey (, Inquisit (, and FluidSurveys (

When choosing a program for running your online survey it is important to consider the following:

What types of question formats and response options are available? Do these match your research needs? For example, you may be interested in recording response latencies as participants complete certain tasks, if the program is not designed to record this type of data it may not be right for you. Of note, if you work with (or hire) a computer programmer, they may be able to use code (e.g., Javascript) to modify the question formats and response options available in the program so that they ask about and/or record the types of data you are interested in – but this can be time intensive and expensive.

How is data transmitted and stored? When participants complete an online survey their responses are transmitted from their computer to, and stored on, the program’s server. It is important to ensure that there are security measures in place to protect data while it is in transit and once it is stored on the server. It is suggested that the most common method of ensuring data is secure while in transit is by using Secure Server Line (SSL) technology. SSL technology encrypts data while it is in transit, so that if the data is accessed by a third party while in transit it will be meaningless (e.g., Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002). There are different ways of protecting data once it is stored on a program’s server. As a researcher, you would want to make sure that there are security measures in place to protect the data. It is also important to consider whether data is backed up by the online research company, and what procedures they have in place for protecting against and handling data loss.

Where data are stored and what are the associated legal concerns with the storage site? Depending on where the program’s server is located, and consequently where data is stored, confidentiality of the data could be compromised. For example, for data stored on US based servers it is possible for law enforcement officials to seek a court order that would allow them to view stored data under the United States Patriot Act. This is an important consideration when collecting sensitive data – such as data on whether a participant has ever engaged in illegal behaviour (e.g., sexually aggressive behaviour).

There are several ways you protect participants’ confidentiality under these circumstances: (1) do not collect identifying information (e.g., names, birthdates) and use anonymous survey links (i.e., do not record IP address, location etc.); (2) if identifying information is required, consider collecting it in a separate survey. For example, if e-mail addresses are required to provide participants with compensation for participating in the research consider collecting e-mail addresses in a separate survey – a link to the separate survey can be presented on the debriefing page of the survey; (3) remove survey data from the online research program’s server once data has been collected.

2) Create your survey.

3) Figure out where you are going to recruit participants from.

Where you recruit participants from is largely going to be determined by whether you can provide participants with compensation (money, course credit) for participating in your research.

Many universities have systems to allow undergraduate students to participate in research and, in return, receive course credit (e.g., 0.5% credit). This pool of participants is free for the researcher and tends to be easy to use; it is limited in that participants are restricted to undergraduate students and may not be representative of the general population.

Posting for free on various websites online. Some websites will let you post your survey online for free, some examples include: (SampleSize page), Facebook, Twitter, Kijiji, Craigslist, and the Social Psychology Network ( You can also contact the website administrators for websites targeting particular interests and ask if you can post your survey link on their website.

For example, my research focuses on sexually aggressive behaviour against adults (rape). Over the past couple of years I have spent time finding websites where people who are sexually aggressive may be more likely to visit (e.g., rape pornography websites and discussion boards, hook-up websites, sports websites etc.) and asking website administrators if I can post on their websites. Of note, a lot of the rape fantasy website sites (and kink websites more generally) that I have visited clearly state that rape fantasies, stories, chats, role-playing games etc. are just fiction/fantasy and only engaged in within consensual relationships.

Warning: try to contact the website administrators privately. If you post your contact information (e.g., e-mail address) on a discussion board, like a rape fantasy discussion board, then you may get a lot of unwanted e-mails and attention.

If you have some money to compensate participants with then you can recruit participants through companies who have pools of participants ready to take-part in research. For example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk: is a popular option. As well some survey program companies have access to pools of participants and, for a fee, can help you recruit participants for your study (e.g., Qualtrics). The benefit of this type of recruitment is that you tend to get pretty good quality data fairly quickly. For example, in two recent studies I have been a part of we have collected data using Qualtrics and have had collected data from several hundred male participants (300-400) over a couple of days.

4) Collect your data!

Clearly there are benefits to conducting research online, but what are the drawbacks?

Here are some potential drawbacks to consider:

Getting quality data! It is possible to get a lot of junk data if you post your survey all over the Internet without any quality controls – this is especially true if you offer an incentive (e.g., electronic gift card). From my experience, it is better to not offer an incentive when posting your survey on various websites for free – unless you have a way to screen participants. You can also include a number of quality control questions throughout your survey so you can check and see if participants are paying attention as they complete your survey. For example, you can ask participants to select a particular response (e.g., pick blue) or leave a question blank.

Ethical concerns. You need to make sure that participants agree (consent) to participate in your survey before they access it. To do this, you can set your survey up so that participants have to either agree or disagree to participate in a survey before they can move forward. If they disagree they need to be rerouted to the debriefing information.

Exit and debrief. You also have to make sure that participants can exit the survey at any time and still get the debriefing information. This is particularly important if you are studying a sensitive topic like sexual violence. To do this, I often include a question at the bottom of every survey page asking participants if they would like to withdraw from the study – if they select ‘yes’ then the survey automatically redirects them to the debriefing information.

Do people report they have engaged in sexually aggressive behaviour in online research?

You may be wondering if people actually report that they have engaged in sexually aggressive behaviour in online surveys – the answer is yes! For example, Greene and Davis (2011) examined a sample of 289 men recruited online and found that some reported engaging in past sexually aggressive behaviour (they don’t report how many). As well, in a recent survey I conducted (N = 400) I also found that a small number of participants reported that they had engaged in sexually aggressive behavior. For example, some participants had given a woman drugs or alcohol without her permission to force her into sex (n = 10) and a small number had used physical force to obtain sex (n= 3). Furthermore about 4% (n = 15) reported some likelihood of committing rape if they were assured they would not get caught or punished. These results are preliminary and do not cover the full range of possible sexually aggressive behaviour, but they do suggest that online surveys can be used to study sexual aggression.


Useful articles:
Ray, J. V., Kimonis, E. R., & Donoghue, C. (2010). Legal, ethical, and methodological considerations in the internet-based study of child pornography offenders. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 28, 84 – 105. doi 10.1002/bsi.906

Greene, P. L., & Davis, K. C. (2011). Latent profiles of risk among a community sample of men: Implications for sexual aggression. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26, 1463 – 1477. doi: 10.1177/0886260510369138
Nosek, B. A., Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2002). E-research: Ethics, security, design, and control in psychological research on the internet. Journal of Social Issues, 58, 161 – 176. doi: 10.1111/1540-4560.00254

Chantal Hermann is a fourth year PhD student at Carleton University, Ottawa. She completed her BSc. (Hons) at Laurentian University in Forensic Science and her MA in psychology at Carleton University. Her research primarily focuses on understanding the role cognition plays in sexual aggression against adults. Other research interests include understanding the role of emotional congruence with children in sexual offending against children, measuring sexual interest in children, and child pornography offenders.

Suggested citation:
Hermann, C. A. (2014, April 5). [Click here]: Collecting data on sexual violence online. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


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