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Validity of Internet-Based Longitudinal Study Data: The elephant in the virtual room

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    Rights statement: ©Carys A Pugh, Kim M Summers, B Mark C Bronsvoort, Ian G Handel, Dylan N Clements. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org), 16.04.2015. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on http://www.jmir.org/, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

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http://www.jmir.org/2015/4/e96/
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere96
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Volume17
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 16 Apr 2015

Abstract

Background: Internet-based data collection relies on well-designed and validated questionnaires. The theory behind designing and validating questionnaires is well described, but few practical examples of how to approach validation are available in the literature.

Objective: We aimed to validate data collected in an ongoing Internet-based longitudinal health study through direct visits to participants and recall of their health records. We demonstrate that despite extensive pre-planning, social desirability can still affect data in unexpected ways and that anticipation of poor quality data may be confounded by positive validation.

Methods: Dogslife is a large-scale, Web-based longitudinal study of canine health, in which owners of Labrador Retrievers were recruited and questioned at regular intervals about the lifestyle and health of their dogs using an Internet-based questionnaire. The Dogslife questionnaire predominantly consists of closed-answer questions. In our work, two separate validation methodologies were used: (1) direct interviews with 43 participants during visits to their households and (2) comparison of owner-entered health reports with 139 historical health records.

Results: Our results indicate that user-derived measures should not be regarded as a single category; instead, each measurement should be considered separately as each presents its own challenge to participants. We recommend trying to ascertain the extent of recall decay within a study and, if necessary, using this to guide data collection timepoints and analyses. Finally, we recommend that multiple methods of communication facilitate validation studies and aid cohort engagement.

Conclusions: Our study highlighted how the theory underpinning online questionnaire design and validation translates into practical data issues when applied to Internet-based studies. Validation should be regarded as an extension of questionnaire design, and that validation work should commence as soon as sufficient data are available. We believe that validation is a crucial step and hope our suggested guidelines will help facilitate validation of other Internet-based cohort studies.

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