Maintaining rigorous standards while collecting online social survey data for conservation

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is impacting the environment and conservation research in fundamental ways. For conservation social scientists, the pandemic has necessitated swift changes to research methods, including shifting away from in-person data collection. Social survey data are key to integrating perspectives and knowledge from a variety of social actors in order to more effectively manage and conserve ecosystems. In-person survey methods have long been considered an indispensable approach for reaching certain populations (e.g., low-income), those without an available sampling frame (e.g., birders), or those defined by place (e.g., park visitors). However, these methods became infeasible for many researchers during the pandemic, as they may during other times of social upheaval. Additionally, response rates across multiple survey modes have been steadily declining over decades, requiring that researchers consider new approaches. Conservation social scientists are now turning to online surveys at a rapid rate, but they must do so while ensuring rigor in this data collection mode. Further, they must address a suite of unique challenges, such as the increasing use of mobile devices by participants and avoiding bots or other survey fraud. This paper charts a course for high-quality online survey research for conservation social scientists through review of recent literature and our own experiences as survey researchers. We provide direction for scientists moving their surveys online, with examples from a recent national study of people who feed wild birds, in which an online survey was implemented through a survey panel and a sample generated via a project participant list. We also make recommendations for research funders, journal editors, and policymakers using survey-based science, who can all play a role in assuring that high-quality survey data are used to inform effective conservation programs and policies.
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