Online research recruitment as a linguist

Liubov Baladzhaeva is a PhD student at the Department of English Language and Literature, University of Haifa, Israel.

She moved to Israel from Russia eight years ago and, as a multilingual immigrant, got interested in second language acquisition and cross-linguistic influence.

She tweets at @baladzhaeval.

Liubov answered our recent call for posts about recruiting for research online, and she is the first of our generous community to do so after that call-out.

Andrew Glover wrote for us late last year about recruiting research participants using Twitter, and we realised the level of interest in this topic is very significant!

Photo by Maxime VALCARCE on
Photo by Maxime VALCARCE on

The Internet makes connecting with strangers a lot easier and it’s a great way to find potential study participants.

Especially if you need some other population than the undergrads at your university.

Especially if you don’t have money to pay people to participate in your study.

There are, broadly, two types of online recruitment:

  1. When you need people to participate in an online study (survey, questionnaire, experiments, Skype interviews, etc.). This first type can also be divided into two subtypes:
    1. when you just post a link to the survey and people click on the link and (hopefully) fill it out, and
    2. when you post the recruitment ad but then people need to receive a link/links from you or to chat with you over Skype.
  2. When you need to find people that would be able to meet with you or your research assistants in person.

For my studies, I did all of the above.

I’m researching first language attrition – changes that happen to one’s native language after moving to another country and being immersed in a second language environment.

During the first two studies, I recruited people to meet with me and to participate in a series of tests and a structured interview and there was also additional Skype interviews.

For my last study, I did everything online. There were several tests where people needed to click on a link and do some language-related tasks, and there were tests where people needed to provide some personal information initially and they then received an email with instructions and links from me.

Each study confirmed consent from participants before proceeding. For example, in the case of SurveyMonkey, it was within the form itself and, in other research, consent was sought within the contact emails.

I decided to do the research online due to my limited research funds and time. All in all, more than 600 people from six countries participated in the various tests for my current research project. It would simply not be feasible for me, as a PhD student at an English department, to meet that many people in person with my restricted resources and set degree schedule.

With this experience now under my belt, I wanted to share some things that I’ve learned along the way:

  • When you’re conducting tests online, you can get a lot of participants really fast. Online experiments can easily gather hundreds of participants in hours.
  • People are generally nice. Many will be willing to donate their time to help your research, especially if they don’t need to leave their house to do it.
  • If you’re doing everything online, you won’t spend money on transportation and on printing the materials. There might be costs of setting up a website or signing up for a platform like SurveyMonkey, but those aren’t mandatory – you might be fine with a survey using a Google Form, for example.
  • Think about your target audience (their age, place of residence, interests) and where they are likely to gather on social media. Choose a platform that your audience prefers. For example, I recruited native speakers of English on Twitter, Israeli Russian-speaking immigrants on Facebook, US Russian-speaking immigrants on Livejournal and Russian speakers from Russia on Vkontakte (Russian platform analogous to Facebook).
  • In your advertisement state the following very clearly: target population, topic of the research (doesn’t need to be detailed), call to action (whether they need to click on the link or leave you a message). It really helps if the ad is fun, with catchy sentences and a funny image or a gif. People are more likely to share recruitment ads with gifs.
  • If you need people to message you, make it as easy for them as possible – provide your email and accept direct messages on social media. Check your spam folder regularly!
  • Make sure your ad and your surveys/tests can be opened on mobile devices – many people browse the web from their phones and tablets and having to use a computer to complete the survey can be seen as requiring too much effort.
  • It helps to have a presence online already (e.g. a popular blog or a Twitter/Facebook account with lots of followers). If many people follow you on social media, they will be inclined to participate and share your ad. If you don’t have many followers, see if you can find someone popular on social media and ask them to post your ad. Look at specific groups on Facebook. For example, when I recruited Israeli participants, I posted in specific groups such as a group for Russian speakers living in Haifa or a group for Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel. If your research isn’t related to a specific interest, it’s better not to post in professional groups. If you’re looking for parents of young children, you can post in a parenting community, but don’t post in a photography or kayaking group – people will get annoyed and you might get banned by moderators.
  • You will likely get some negative feedback. It’s the Internet, after all, and people have opinions on everything. I got comments about the quality and relevance of my research from people who have no experience in research, comments like “why the hell does the government spend money on stuff like this” when I was an MA student paying for my degree and for research-associated costs by myself! There will also always be people giving advice – you shouldn’t ask that, you should change this sentence, you should add this question, your tests are boring, you’re doing it all wrong. Sometimes, there also might be helpful comments like when people find a typo in your test (happened to me a few times!). Remember to keep your cool and stay professional in your replies – both because you’re representing your institution, but also because snapping at one person can make ten other people decide you’re mean and they don’t want to help you.

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