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The term ‘response rates’ refers to the level of cooperation of respondents in a survey. ‘Unit nonresponse’ refers to the difficulty that a researcher has in contacting the individuals in the study’s sample. ‘Item nonresponse’ is based upon a refusal to give answers to specific questions within the survey. There has been a decline in response rates across a wide range of survey types and across countries for the last several decades, raising basic questions about the general quality of data collected through surveys. In a political survey, for example, people who are less interested in politics may be less likely to agree to be interviewed. As a consequence, the results of the survey may underestimate levels of interest in the population. The item nonresponse rate can vary for different questions in the survey, creating bias in some measures but not others.
The highest unit response rates are achieved by government agencies, followed by academic survey research centers and then commercial firms. The trend over time is present in all three kinds of surveys. Generally, response rates are highest in face-to-face surveys conducted in people’s homes by well-trained interviewers. As contacts become less personal, such as through the telephone, individuals are less likely to agree to spend time speaking with an interviewer. With changing living patterns, the number of single-person households has increased significantly. Single persons are much more difficult to locate for an interview. Also, people are more concerned about issues of privacy and confidentiality. Research on the shifts in willingness to participate in surveys is complicated because of the lack of data from those who were not interviewed.
The impact of lowered response rates on data quality is not well understood; existing research suggests that there are some instances in which they do not have any effect (Keeter et al. 2006). There is no clear set of actions that researchers can take to sustain or increase response rates with an understanding of their relative cost–benefit tradeoffs.
- Curtin, R., Presser, S., & Singer. E. (2005). Changes in telephone survey nonresponse over the past quarter century. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, 87–98.
- de Leeuw, E. & de Heer, W. (2002). Trends in household survey nonresponse: A longitudinal and international comparison. In R. M. Groves, D. A. Dillman, & J. L. Eltinge (eds.), Survey nonresponse. Chichester: John Wiley, pp. 41–54.
- Keeter, S., Kennedy, C., Dimock, M., Best, J., & Craighill, P. (2006). Gauging the impact of growing nonresponse on estimates from a national RDD telephone survey. Public Opinion Quarterly, 70, 759–779.