Questionnaires in ecology: a review of past use and recommendations for best practice

P C L White, N V Jennings, A R Renwick, N H L Barker

Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review


1. Questionnaires, or social surveys, are used increasingly as a means of collecting data in ecology. We present a critical review of their use and give recommendations for good practice.

2. We searched for papers in which questionnaires were used in 57 ecological academic journals, published over the period 1991-2003 inclusive. This provided a total sample size of 168 questionnaires from 127 papers published in 22 academic journals.

3. Most questionnaires were carried out in North America and western Europe, and addressed species-level issues, principally focusing on mammals. The majority were concerned with impacts of species and/or their conservation, and just under half with human-wildlife interactions.

4. Postal survey was the method used most frequently to carry out the questionnaires, followed by in-person interviews. Some questionnaires were conducted by telephone, and none was web-based.

5. Most questionnaires were concerned with obtaining factual information or perceptions of facts. Ground-truthing (independent verification of the facts) was carried out in less than 10% of questionnaires.

6. The mean (± SE) sample size (number of respondents) per questionnaire was 1422 ± 261 and the average (± SE) response rate was 63 ± 3%. These figures varied widely depending on the methods used to conduct the questionnaire.

7. The analysis of data was mostly descriptive. Simple univariate methods were the most frequently used statistical tools, and data from a third of questionnaires were not subjected to any analysis beyond simple descriptions of the results.

8. Synthesis and applications. We provide recommendations for best practice in the future use of questionnaires in ecology, as follows: (i) the definition of the target population, any hypotheses to be tested and procedures for the selection of participants should be clearly documented; (ii) questionnaires should be piloted prior to their use; (iii) the sample size should be sufficient for the statistical analysis; (iv) the rationale for the choice of survey method should be clearly stated; (v) the number of non-respondents should be minimized; (vi) the question and answer format should be kept as simple as possible; (vii) the structure of the questionnaire and the data emerging from it should be unambiguously shown in any publication; (viii) bias arising from non-response should be quantified; (ix) the accuracy of data should be assessed by ground-truthing where relevant; (x) the analysis of potentially interrelated data should be done by means of modelling. Researchers should also consider whether alternative, interpretative methods, such as in-depth interviews or participatory approaches, may be more appropriate, for example where the focus is on elucidating motivations or perceptions rather than testing factual hypotheses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)421-430
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2005


  • conservation
  • interview
  • management
  • opinion
  • participatory approach
  • policy
  • sampling

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