non-sampling errors

Get your Sampling Out of My Survey Errors…

February 17th, 2015 by

Author: Trent Buskirk, PhD.

In my last article, we got a bit comfortable with the notion of errors in surveys. We discussed sampling errors, which occur because we take a random sample rather than a complete census.

If you ever had to admit error, sampling error is the type to admit. Polls admit this sort of error frequently by reporting the margin of error. Margin of error is the sampling error multiplied by a distributional value that can be used to create a confidence interval.

But there are some other types of error that can occur in the survey context that, while influential, are a bit more invisible. They are generally referred to as non-sampling error.

These types of errors are not associated with sample-to-sample variability but to sources like selection biases, frame coverage issues, and measurement errors. These are not the kind of errors you want in your survey.

In theory, it is possible to have an estimator that has little sampling error associated with it. That looks good on the surface, but this estimator may yield poor information due to non-sampling errors.

For example, a high rate of non-response may mean that some participants are opting out and biasing estimates.

Likewise, a scale or set of items on the survey could have known measurement error. They may be imprecise in their measurement of the construct of interest or they may measure that construct better for some populations than others. Again, this can bias estimates.

Frame coverage error occurs when the sampling frame does not quite match the target population. This leads to the sample including individuals who aren’t in the target population, missing individuals who are, or both.

A perspective called the Total Survey Error Framework allows researchers to evaluate estimates on errors that come from sampling and those that don’t. It can be very useful in choosing a sampling design that minimizes errors as a whole.

So when you think about errors and how they might come about in surveys, don’t forget about the non-sampling variety – those that could come as a result of non-response, measurement, or coverage.