Challenges in Using Online Surveys for Research Involving Delicate/Sensitive Topics: Data Protection Practices of European NGOs Operating in the Global South


Using online surveys seems to be a cost-effective and simple way of collecting data regardless of the topic. Potential respondents, however, can become frustrated over receiving unsolicited emails and even view survey links as potential information technology security risks or threats to confidentiality.

My research project sought to explore the nexus of data protection and aid work in the Global South and related dilemmas by combining primary data collection tools (online survey, interviews) with desk research. While the topic itself sounds technical or legal in nature, it was not free from controversies and dilemmas among nongovernmental organizations that implement aid projects while being subject to the European Union General Data Protection Regulation. These controversies and dilemmas may explain a low response rate especially if the research project also involves certain geographical-political diversity. When a researcher from a Central-Eastern European country labeled as “illiberal” approaches mostly Western European NGOs asking them about their data protection practices in the Global South, unexpected challenges may emerge during data collection. To counterbalance them, I opted to combine the online survey with online qualitative interviews to find an explanation for the initial low response rate. These interviews proved to be instrumental not only for increasing the survey response rate but also for understanding how important the researcher’s (perceived) positionality can be.

This case (1) explores the details of a data collection focusing on the design of the online survey and the selection of participants and (2) considers some “soft” factors that may explain an initially low response rate. Sharing the experience of my own research project may also help other researchers to recognize that scientific research can be affected by factors they cannot control.

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