Paper-based data collection has been around as long as humans have had an interest in understanding the world around them — tick marks on parchment were used by ancient civilizations to track food inventory, and in the 1800s the first known census was collected via pen and paper. Now, digital and cloud-based systems for data collection are rapidly increasing, but despite this trend, a surprisingly large number of organizations still opt for paper-based data collection. Why is this?

There are many reasons why companies believe this method is still better. In this article, we will look at three of the biggest myths and analyze why they may not be as true as some organizations believe.

Myth #1: Paper-based data collection is cheaper

It is true that the upfront costs of paper-based surveys are cheaper than that of their digital counterparts. However, in the long term, paper-based methods might actually be more costly than digital ones. When researchers switched to digital data collection for a fever surveillance study in Tanzania, costs actually went down by 25%. (Meanwhile, data errors decreased from 7% to 1%.)

A World Bank study found that average interview costs decrease by up to 71% when using mobile data collection. Similarly, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, paper-based studies have the potential to be 49-62% more expensive than digital methods used over the same period of time. That could work out to be a lot of money!

The main reason for the higher cost associated with paper-based collection is the errors that result from manually entering paper data into a digital system. Oxfam described how they previously used a rigorous — and expensive — data entry process to avoid these errors:

[Data entry] is normally conducted twice by two different data-entry clerks. Where there is a mismatch between the two entries, a third check is required. This process can take up to a month and costs roughly 10 per cent of the total budget for data collection.

Oxfam, 2015

Once they transitioned to digital data collection, this month-long process completely went away. Digital methods eliminate a substantial amount of human error and therefore are more cost effective than paper methods, despite the higher initial costs and monthly fees.

paper-based data collection

Myth #2: Switching to an electronic data collection system will take a long time

It is true that it takes time to train staff on new digital collection systems. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the time; and it’s not as much of a time investment or challenge as companies might think.

Contrary to popular belief, digital systems require minimal training since today they are becoming more and more user-friendly. Researchers from the University of Ireland discovered that training time actually “reduced substantially” when they switched from paper-based surveys to digital data collection, since training no longer had to cover data coding. Digital data collection also saves training time because survey apps automatically handle complex skip patterns, which take a long time for surveyors to learn and master on paper.

A World Bank study found that 89% of surveyors actually prefer mobile data collection tools over paper-based surveys.

Combine this with the fact that digital methods are proven to be less expensive in the long run and will decrease entry errors across a data set, and there is little reason to not invest in a digital data-collection system.

paper-based data collection

Myth #3: Data stored on paper is more secure than data stored in the cloud

Since its inception, a common concern about the cloud is that it is less secure than paper. While this is a valid concern given successful hacking attempts in recent years, cloud data is actually far more secure than many companies think, and paper data can be highly insecure.

Paper surveys, in particular, can leave data very vulnerable as the process requires a number of steps where raw data is exposed…

There are also more people involved in seeing the data: the enumerator, data-entry clerks, consultants and headquarters staff at a minimum.

With digital surveys, only the enumerators (at the point of data entry) and selected…staff with administrator rights are able to see all of the information.

Oxfam, 2015

Data housed on paper often ends up sitting in unmonitored filing cabinets or on someone’s desk – places that are far from secure. Digital collection systems, on the other hand, often come with some form of security and/or encryption (here’s a detailed example) that keeps digitally collected data safer than it would be in any other form.

There are still organizations that will argue for paper-based data collection, citing unnecessary expenses, long training times and minimal data security. A deeper look at these arguments, though, shows that paper-based data collection, while valuable at one time in our history, is no longer the ideal method for data collection, especially now that there are high-quality digital data collection platforms to help move every organization into the digital data collection age.

Photos (in order) by Eco Warrior Princessrawpixel, and Samuel Zeller on Unsplash


Kayla Ferguson is an avid world traveler who writes and does creative stuff to fund her globe-trotting addiction. She can also frequently be found running the mountain trails of Colorado, scuba diving or trying to brainstorm the next world-saving idea with her two best friends--sorry, cats.

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