Thing 14: Survey tools

Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus with detail of census scene
Taking the Census: detail from the
Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (late 2nd century B.C.).
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Photograph © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

Surveys have always been a major research tool but the increasing number of online survey programs makes designing, circulating, and processing surveys so much easier. Perhaps the downside is that we now tend to be inundated with emails asking us for just a few moments to provide information or feedback in the form of a brief survey. For research purposes, though, several digital tools are available that can create very sophisticated surveys that have the potential to provide rich data. To point you in the right direction, Thing 14 presents a survey of some of the most accessible of these tools. This week’s post has been written by Andy Tseng (Data Infrastructure Architect Research Services), Satu Alakangas (Liaison Librarian & Research Support, Business & Economics), Hero MacDonald (Arts Librarian) and Craig Patterson (Senior Client Services Librarian). And don’t worry, I won’t be asking you to participate in a survey at the end…


Getting started

Lime Survey

LimeSurvey (formerly know as PHPSurveyor) is a free, open-source survey application that used the PHP programming language. The survey data is stored using MySQL database. It allows users to develop and publish surveys, and collect responses, without any programming knowledge. LimeSurvey is currently being provided as a pilot service by the University of Melbourne’s ITS Research Services. Find out more here.


SurveyMonkey is an online survey service that is very easy to use and provides a wide pool of templates. The basic version of SurveyMonkey is free but a paid version is also available for additional features.

Google Forms

Google Forms is a free web tool provided by Google that allows users to create collaborative forms, surveys, questionnaires and, using Google Spreadsheets, to record all the responses. A Google (or Gmail) account is required in order to use this tool.



LimeSurvey, SurveyMonkey and Google Forms offer different ways of creating and hosting online surveys and each has a slightly different sets of features and functionalities. Before starting, it is essential to understand what type of research survey/questionnaire you would like to create and what functionalities you need as part of your survey.

As discussed in Thing 03 (File Sharing), it is important to check if there are any restrictions that prevent you from hosting and sharing certain survey  data with external commercial services (e.g., copyright, privacy, ethics and security issues). Please refer to the Copyright Office’s blog post for more information and perhaps also consult with the University’s Office for Research Ethics and Integrity prior to using any of these cloud-based services for hosting your research surveys.


Integration into practice


The LimeSurvey service provided by University’s ITS Research Services is relatively new and internal technical support is therefore still under development. LimeSurvey has huge potential for customisation and a large body of community support. It comes with a straightforward user-interface and is packed with many useful features; however, the initial learning curve for non-technical users could be rather steep. If you have experience with online surveys, though, and are familiar with current web technology, you should not find it too hard to familiarise yourself with the application in a relatively short time.


This is probably the most popular service used by the university community when it comes to creating online surveys and questionnaires. Most researchers use a free account but some Faculties, Schools or research groups might already have acquired paid licences for their staff. SurveyMonkey comes with a user-friendly interface and many attractive and easily navigated templates. It doesn’t allow you to share individual surveys with others unless you all have access to the same account. The back-end interface is probably one of the best around. If you have never used online survey tools before, this would be the place to start.

Google Forms

As part of the Google Drive service, Google Forms is a simple and easy-to-use tool that is probably familiar to many people with Google accounts. One of its key strengths is that it allows for multiple users from multiple devices and it offers basic survey questions that are perhaps more suited for less complex surveys. The customisation of the interface is limited but it does offer close integration with other Google products such as Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets.





Google Forms

Cost Free
  • BASIC (Free)
  • SELECT ($19/month)
  • GOLD ($25/month)
  • PLATINUM ($65/ month)
SSL Yes Yes Yes
Question types Basic (20 types) Basic (15 types) Very Basic
Conditions for questions (Skip Logic /Branching) Yes Yes Yes
Survey output CSV, TSV,  Excel, Word, PDF, SPSS, XML, R, SPSS CSV, Excel, XML, HTML, SPSS (Gold Package only) CSV, TSV, Excel, Word, PDF
Data storage Online (MySQL database provided by ITS Research Services) Online (by SurveyMonkey) Online (Google Spreadsheets provided by Google)
Total storage limit None None Same as your Google Drive
How long are surveys kept for As long as you have a LimeSurvey account As long as you have a SurveyMonkey account
As long as you have an active Google account
Best for
  • Unfunded research data collection
  •  Technical user
  • Funded administrative/research data collection
  •  Non-technical user
  • Unfunded administrative/research data collection
  •  Non-technical user
Optimised for mobile devices No No Limited

More tools…

There are also other survey options to consider. For teaching purposes, the University of Melbourne has developed a simple poll system called Quick Poll that can be used to generate anonymous polls in class. FluidSurveys is another popular online survey provider that offers many paid interactive features which may not otherwise be available with other services. If you have a modest project and are not expecting a huge number of responses to process, you might also want to have a look at Survio; it offers a clean user-interface with some useful tools to analyse your survey results online.

Andy Tseng, Satu Alakangas, Hero MacDonald, and Craig Patterson


Have you used any of the above tools and, if so, what were their pros and cons? Are there any other tools that you have found useful? Drop us a line in the comments … or complete this brief, twenty-page questionnaire … just kidding but do comment if you have a query or an experience to share. Next week, capturing and archiving webpages and social media for research purposes.

Mark Shepheard

6 Responses to “Thing 14: Survey tools”

  1. daniela arias says:

    Guys thanks so much for the hints, I am always afraid when it comes to dealing with the data and this post was easy to follow, very light and nice 🙂

    1. Andy Tseng says:

      Thanks Daniela, glad you found this post useful. 🙂

  2. Chris Morgan says:

    hi – great article and great series – very much appreciated.

    do you have any advice on survey software for tablets etc – my Unimelb PhD involves interviewing pregnant women in PNG and I’d like a tablet-based approach that does not need an active internet connection.

    1. Andy Tseng says:

      Hi Chris,

      I hope my email to you did help you to come up with a solution. Do let me know if you need further assistance on the matter. 🙂

  3. Ada says:

    As this post was written some time ago, I wonder if you have an update regarding best survey options (medical faculty) for university staff? Thanks

    1. Jennifer Warburton says:

      Hi Ada,
      23 Research Things at the University of Melbourne has been relaunched. See our new Thing 2 on survey tools. It discusses Red REDCap a web-based informatics tool for building and managing online surveys and databases, particularly in the medical research domain. REDCap is provided by the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Clinical and Translational Science Platform (MCATS).

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