Update on respondent-driven sampling: Theory and practical considerations for studies of persons who inject drugs

Lucie Léon, Don Des Jarlais, Marie Jauffret-Roustide, Yann Le Strat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the last 5 years, more than 600 articles using respondent-driven sampling has been published. This article aims to provide an overview of this sampling technique with an update on the key questions that remain when using respondent-driven sampling, with regard to its application and estimators. Respondent-driven sampling was developed by Heckathorn in 1997 and was based on the principle of individuals recruiting other individuals, who themselves were recruited in previous waves. When there is no sampling frame, respondent-driven sampling has demonstrated its ability to capture individuals belonging to “hidden” or “hard-to-reach” populations in numerous epidemiological surveys. People who use drugs, sex workers, or men who have sex with men are notable examples of specific populations studied using this technique, particularly by public agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. Respondent-driven sampling, like many others, is based on a set of assumptions that, when respected, can ensure an unbiased estimator. Based on a literature review, we will discuss, among other topics, the effect of violating these assumptions. A special focus is made on surveys of persons who inject drugs. Publications show two major thrusts—methodological and applied researches—for providing practical recommendations in conducting respondent-driven sampling studies. The reasons why respondent-driven sampling did not work for a given population of interest will usually provide important insights for designing health-promoting interventions for that population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalMethodological Innovations
StatePublished - 2016


  • Respondent-driven sampling
  • bias
  • persons who inject drugs
  • variance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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