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We encounter the problem of representability when conducting surveys. Web surveys are relatively inexpensive as long as a nonprobability sample is used. If a closed population is studied (e.g. associations, students of a faculty, employees of a company) and email addresses are accessible that is not an issue. The problem arises when we wish to draw conclusions about the general population on the basis of web surveys where the probability of an individual being recruited is unknown.
Statistical inference – which usually includes a confidence interval as a measure of the risk that we are wrong – is based on the fact that the probability of an individual being included in the survey is known a priori and for the entire population.
If such a probability is unknown, one can at best presume – based on past experience – that the findings apply to the entire population. However, past experience usually varies greatly. This problem is similar to television or radio polls, where the opinion of the general population can be completely different from the opinion of a few thousand individuals that decided to participate.
If one wishes to draw conclusions about the entire population based on a web surveys, there are three options:
What can a student or a researcher without significant funds that wants to infer about whole population do?
To carry out a high quality web survey based on the general population, one requires:
In case of a limited budget there are two possibilities:
All this time we have been talking about general population and not about members of a certain club, society, organisation..., where problem is much smaller; we only need to obtain permission to invite all potential respondents (members, employees) into a survey.
More information about web surveys can be found on WebSM webpage.