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ONLINE RESEARCH SURVEYS

Cheating in online surveys casts doubt on compensated research

By our News Team | 2022

Researchers find that people involved in paid online research studies may be doing it ‘as a job’ and are often no more than scam artists.

Scam artists are taking advantage of online surveys that pay for participation – a method of market research that has become common practice since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This conclusion stems from a study that began just before the start of the pandemic in 2020 in the US state of Florida to evaluate anti-tobacco public service announcements using neuromarketing measures. 

The researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) planned to monitor participants as they watched the announcements using electroencephalograms; sensors that measure hand sweat and heart rate, and computer software that tracks eye movements and facial expressions.

Online research surveys

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

But like many aspects of research, the pandemic forced the USF team to pivot its approach to an “at home” setting. They and the lab’s technology partner reconfigured the study and the software, limiting it to facial expression and attention analysis via webcam. 

Participants were also asked about the effectiveness of the public service announcements, producing what’s known as a perceived effectiveness (PE) score. Many agencies and institutions rely on PE scores to identify which announcement would be most persuasive in specific media markets.

False data could have dramatically changed survey results

In a study published this month in the journal Social Marketing Quarterly, the researchers report that the facial expression data showed a large percentage of participants may not be who they claimed to be and that their data could have dramatically shifted the results.

Participants were required to be a current or recent tobacco user, to be a Florida resident and have access to a web camera. They were recruited using two methods: Through community partners sharing digital flyers and through a professional panel recruiter. The participants were offered a cash or other incentive to watch three of 12 public service announcements in random order.

Despite signing a consent form that explained their faces would be recorded, 42 of the 92 responses from the “community” group were fake, either using stock photos in place of their faces or taking the survey multiple times with different IP addresses. 

Even the 409 responses from the vetted panel recruiter included 45 that deployed deceitful tactics, such as uploading a video of a person watching something on a screen, or they demonstrated lack of engagement, which was calculated by the participant’s head position.

“This research presents a cautionary tale about compensated online surveys,” said study co-author Rob Hammond, Marketing Instructor and Director of the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation at USF. “In addition to deliberate deceitful behaviour in both the community and vetted panel groups, the lack of attention suggests individuals may approach online surveys ‘as a job’ resulting in less effort and attention.”

With marketing surveys increasingly moving online, the researchers suggest that compensation should only be provided to respondents after the data have been verified.

Read the full research here.

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