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Psychological Experiments on the Internet

Editor: Michael H. Birnbaum
Publisher: San Diego: Academic Press, 2000
Review Published: September 2004

 REVIEW 1: Smita C. Banerjee

Undergraduate students have been the favorite sample pool from which researchers have drawn subjects for experiments and participants for surveys. Other methods of collecting subjects include the laborious task of soliciting people from the community and phone and mail surveys. Psychological Experiments on the Internet, edited by Michael H. Birnbaum, provides insightful discussions and illustrations of how to conduct web-based psychological research. It is timely because the internet and the web are emerging as important resources for gathering large samples of data in a short period of time. How can researchers best utilize these new communication technologies in gathering data? How valid are the data obtained from the web?

The book provides a thoughtful analysis of the issues related with conducting experiments on the web and, more importantly, offers specific examples of various psychological researches that have been conducted on the web. The book has three sections. The first section provides a historical review of web-based experiments and deals with some of the underlying methodological issues of web-based research including validity of web experiments, recruiting specific populations, and advantages and disadvantages of internet research. The second section is comprised of studies of individual and cultural differences like personality research, human sexual behavior, perceptions of the expressions of surprise, and self-efficacy. This section provides very good examples of psychological studies that have been conducted on the web. The third section discusses computer techniques for creating and using the web for research. Issues like methods for creating online questionnaires, data integrity, password protection, and allowing participants to come back and finish a previously started experiment are discussed.

This book is concise, ground in current research, and provides detailed explanations of issues important for conducting web-based research. Its major strength is that it offers specific examples of Internet based research including advantages and disadvantages of conducting this kind of research as compared with laboratory based research. The book also provides empirical examples of varied topics of psychological research using either an experimental or a survey design. In addition, the book can be credited for offering an introduction to internet basics including computer-mediated communication, web site design, html, Java, and capabilities and limitations of the internet for various kinds of psychological researches. It is also a useful resource for learning many internet abbreviations and web terms. For instance, Jonathan Baron and Michael Siepmanís chapter provides a detailed description of techniques and procedures needed for putting questionnaires on the web. Finally, the authors of the chapters can be credited for providing links to all the web-based studies that allow the reader to see the whole experimental setting and/or the survey online.

Three audiences in particular will find this book useful. Researchers in the field of psychology will gain useful information regarding research conducted on internet and the web. More specifically, psychology researchers interested in conducting web-based research will learn a great deal from the experiences of scholars who have contributed in the book. Tom Buchananís chapter on the potential of the internet for personality research reviews psychometric approach to personality research and problems facing online personality research, as well as offers methodological ramifications for the same. Robert D. Bailey, Winona E Foote, and Barbara Throckmortonís chapter on comparison of college and internet surveys on the issue of human sexuality shows how socially "sensitive" topics such as sex can be studied favorably on the internet as "Internet participants may be willing to disclose information that might not otherwise be readily secured from a college student tested in a classroom" (166).

Not only can the internet be a useful resource for studying socially sanctioned topics, but it can also be useful for gathering large-scale cross-sectional data. Donatella Pagani and Luigi Lombardiís chapter on cultural differences of perceptions of facial features demonstrates the ease of obtaining a cross-cultural sample using the internet and the validity of internet data as compared with laboratory obtained data. And finally, John H. Mueller, D. Michele Jacobsen, and Ralf Schwarzerís chapter shows how computer experiences are associated with increased self-efficacy and lower test anxiety.

The second audience who will find this book useful is computer practitioners who work in social science research realms. The third section on advanced computer techniques for internet research provides concrete details of randomization, timing in experiments such as those in cognitive experimental psychology, methods for scoring and feedback on surveys or tests, tracking of participants, security, and saving of data on the server amongst others. Kenneth O. McGraw, Mark D. Tew, and John E. Williams describe the details of PsychExps, an online undergraduate laboratory where experiments can be conducted and data collected for use. Similarly, Gregory Francis, Ian Neath, and Aimee Surprenant discuss the development of an online laboratory using Java programming language. Jonathan Baron and Michael Siepmann focus on the technical details related with putting questionnaires on the web and take the reader through a comprehensive chapter that teaches the necessary steps. Finally, in his chapter on the server side of psychology web experiments, William C. Schmidt provides an understanding of the client-server relationship and methods for ensuring greater control to psychologists in the delivery of experiments on the web.

The third audience who will find this book useful is graduate students. This book offers insight into conducting various kinds of psychological experiments on the internet and provides new and creative ways of conducting research. By studying decision making processes on the internet, Birnbaum reinforces the results of laboratory research and concludes that internet data can be used to expose variables that may moderate the generalization from lab research with undergraduates to research with other populations. John H. Krantz and Reeshad Dalalís chapter on validity of web-based research provides explanations to methodological (more specifically, validity-based) issues associated with surveys, correlational designs and experimental designs when using data from the internet. Jochen Musch and Ulf-Dietrich Reips then take the readers into a brief history of web experimenting and answer some of the basic questions related with using internet data, including which operating system is necessary, problems of hacking, possibility of contacting participants via email, and feedback to participants. Finally, Reips wraps up the general issues section by discussing advantages and disadvantages of using internet data as compared to traditional laboratory research and offers solutions for some of the common problems.

In this way, in a graduate quantitative research methods class, this book can be used in combination with other traditional research methods textbooks to introduce students to yet another way of conducting research. This book is not ideally suited for undergraduates because there is an expectation that the reader is familiar with psychology or social science research methods, designs, and the internet. However, the framework adopted in the book will provide graduate students enough to think about when adopting and applying web-based research technique in different fields. My only suggestion for improvement would be for the editor to have included a conclusion that reflects on the important contributions of the chapters and recommendations for future research. This would help contextualize the research studies and help tie social science research issues with web experimenting.

Psychological Experiments on the Internet offers important discussions that provide a clear picture of the use of internet in social science research. Adapting the internet into social science research is a reality of the 21st century and has been explored well by the contributors in the book. While internet research will not usurp laboratory-based research, it will be of immense use for social scientists to consider this new medium for studying various issues. Besides psychology, areas like communication, sociology, and political science can also benefit from conducting web-based research. The book offers a methodological framework to understand the capabilities and limitations of the internet and the web for conducting human subjects research.

Smita C. Banerjee:
Smita C. Banerjee is a doctoral candidate at the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at Rutgers University. Her research interests include children's media, health communication, media effects, and media literacy.  <smitach@scils.rutgers.edu>

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