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Internet Research Methods in Psychology R. Chris Fraley University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Seminar - PSYC 593
Introduction • During the last decade an increasing number of psychologists have begun to use the internet to collect empirical data. • The internet has the potential to be useful for two reasons: • Integrated data management • Open laboratory – Whether you collect data from undergraduate subject pools, community samples, or elsewhere, you can use the same platform for research design, collecting data, providing feedback, and managing data. – Participants can take part in your research any time of the day. – If desired, you can open your lab doors to people from across the world.
Our plan • My objective in this course is to show you how to design research studies that can be implemented on the internet. • Outline: 1. What kinds of research can be done using the internet? 2. How to obtain access to a web server. 3. How to create a basic HTML web page that can be used to collect data. 4. How to create CGI scripts to process and save those data. 5. How to do advanced things, such as randomize stimuli/questions, randomly assign people to conditions, and present items/stimuli on separate pages. 6. A discussion on ethics, sampling concerns, and informed consent.
Part 1 Basic concepts and what can be done
How the Net Works • Most web pages are written in a language called HTML (hypertext markup language). • HTML files exist on a web server. When a person types in the URL for a specific file in his or her web browser, the person is essentially retrieving that pre-existing file from the web server.
How the Net Works web user types a URL into the browser web server web user the browser renders the HTML file as a web page locates requested HTML file and sends it to user’s computer
Static vs. Dynamic Web Pages • The obvious limitation of using HTML pages in this manner is that the user’s web experience is static—he or she will see the same page each time he or she goes to that address. • It is possible, however, to program the server to deliver dynamic content—content that varies from one situation to the next or from one person to the next. • This kind of interactivity is necessary in order to produce the kinds of web pages that allow for creative, complex research designs.
Dynamic Web Programming and CGI • This kind of interactivity can be accomplished by writing programs, called CGI scripts, that run on the web server. • CGI scripts are often written in Perl, PHP, or other languages. (I’ll expand on some technical details later. ) What is important to note right now is that those languages are available for free and, with a bit of practice, are relatively easy to use.
Dynamic Web Programming and CGI web user types a URL into the browser web server • locates requested CGI script. • Performs the commands and creates a new HTML file. web user the browser renders the HTML file as a web page • Sends HTML file to user’s computer
What Can Be Done with CGI Scripts? • By using CGI scripts, it is possible to accomplish a number of feats that are impossible using standard web pages. – – – – • save data randomize the order of questions random assignment to conditions track participants over time implement complex branching patterns customize text and images create customized feedback for users Let’s discuss some of these points in more detail.
Automatically Save Responses to a Data File • One of most time-consuming aspects of conducting paper-and-pencil research is data entry. • It is easy to write CGI scripts that save the data automatically. – save as a comma-delimited text file (that can be easily imported into SPSS or MS Excel) – save directly into a database (such as My. SQL)
snapshot of a comma-delimited text file
Provide Participants with Customized Feedback • One of the most valuable features of conducting research over the internet is that it allows you to provide instant feedback to the research subject. – plot the person’s scores – create bar charts or tables that summarize the data (e. g. , means, SDs, correlations) from the broader sample automatically
Substitution • One of the perks of using dynamic programming is that it allows for substitution. • In other words, you can take information that has been provided by the user (or computed by some other part of the script) and substitute that into the web page that is sent to the user.
My wife’s name has been substituted into the web page, making the questions tailored to me.
Randomization of Stimuli Order • In most questionnaire-based research, it is not unusual for researchers to present questions in the same order for each research participant. • In fact, many researchers who have placed their questionnaires on-line have followed this practice.
Randomization of Stimuli Order • There are obvious limitations of using the same presentation order for stimuli. • Most importantly, there may be systematic order effects that impact responding. • By randomizing the order in which items/stimuli are presented, it is possible to minimize these kinds of problems. • It is possible to randomize the order of stimuli quite easily using a CGI script.
First time the page is loaded
Next time the page is loaded the questions are in a different order.
Random Assignment to Conditions • It is also possible to use these same randomization techniques to randomly assign participants to experimental conditions. • Importantly, it is easy to implement this in a way that precludes research subjects from knowing that they are in but one of many possible cells of a research design. • Example: • http: //www. web-research-design. net/cgibin/APS 2005/experiment 1. pl
Measure Response Times • It is also possible to write CGI scripts that assess the amount of time that a user spends on a web page.
Measure Response Times • It is not advisable to assess response times for decisions that can be made within a few seconds (e. g. , lexical decision tasks) because it can take up to three seconds for a simple HTML page to fully load. • However, by using multimedia applications, such as Macromedia’s Flash, it is possible to assess response times at a more microscopic level.
Measure Response Times • Example lexical decision application • http: //www. web-researchdesign. net/APS 2005/lexicaldecision. swf
Use Complex Branching Patterns • One limitation of paper-and-pencil questionnaires is that it is difficult for participants to follow complex branching operations. – There may be certain questions that should be skipped if the participant is not married, for example. – If you want to tailor the stimuli to a specific user (e. g. , a person’s ideographically unwanted traits), it is difficult to do so with a paper-based test. • Again, CGI scripts (and DOM manipulation) can be used to implement these conditional patterns.
Track Participants Over Time • It is often desirable to follow a group of people across time to study continuity and change in attitudes, moods, behavior, and traits. • The Internet provides a useful way to track data across time because people can – (a) log-on at their convenience – (b) all submissions can be time-stamped automatically by the web server – (c) the person’s progress can be easily tracked across multiple sessions
Learning How to Conduct Research over the Internet • How do you do this stuff? !
Learning How to Conduct Research over the Internet • The first thing to note is that these techniques are relatively easy to learn—even if you have very little experience in programming.
Learning How to Conduct Research over the Internet • What you need: – a computer with an internet connection (dial-up modem [lulz? ] or high-speed) – a web server • Professional hosting sites (e. g. , Netfirms) • Create your own (e. g. , spare PC, Apache software) – software that is freely available over the Internet • text editor (e. g. , Edit. Plus (windows), textwrangler (mac))
Learning How to Conduct Research over the Internet • What you need: – Patience • Programming can be rewarding, but it can also be frustrating. • Take breaks when you hit a problem • Ask a “blind eye” to give it a look • Check the details (semi-colons, commas, quotes) • Use error checking short cuts