Permission and approval

Are you paying participants, or using lotteries or prize draws?

Are you going to compensate your research respondents for their time? Payments can be to reimburse expenses, to compensate for time, inconvenience and possible discomfort, to show a token appreciation for participants’ help, or to pay for people’s help.

The question of compensating or paying research participants raises ethics questions, but there is no clear guidance or consensus on this important topic.

The use of payment as an ‘incentive’ to participation is controversial. As Alderson & Morrow (2004) observed, the standards of the 1947 Nuremberg Code state that no persuasion or pressure of any kind should be put on participants. In this regard, incentive payments can be seen as coercive – or as exerting undue influence on potential participants’ decisions about whether to take part in research. A particular concern is that participants from financially disadvantaged groups may be more vulnerable to this kind of coercion – because they need the money, and so their consent is not truly ‘freely given’ if payment is involved.

Nonetheless, one argument that is often made in favour of payment to participants is that it reduces non-response bias, and thus increases the sample quality. Precisely because payment encourages responding, it can help researchers to achieve a sample that is more representative of the population being studied than could otherwise be achieved (see, for example, Groves and Peytcheva 2008).

In effect, then, payments are used because they are an inducement to participate – and so you can’t avoid the ethics considerations outlined above. If payment or compensation always represents an inducement to participate, the question you have to address is whether it represents an undue inducement:

  • Could it distort people’s judgements of the risks and benefits of participation?
  • Does it interfere with their freely given and fully informed consent? How will you ensure it does not?

Payment should not over-ride the principles of freely given and fully informed consent. Participants should know – before they start the research – that they can refuse to answer questions or withdraw from the study at any time without losing their payment.

Because of these ethics questions, research ethics committees will scrutinise carefully any plans to pay research participants. So, if you propose to make any kind of payment to participants in your research, you need to think carefully about why it is necessary, and how it is done. We suggest you follow Wendler and colleagues’ (2002) useful guidance:

  • develop guidelines for when and how payment is made;
  • ensure you have a clear and explicit justification for paying participants that you can give to the ethics committee;
  • ensure that participants who choose to withdraw from the research will still receive payment;
  • consider carefully any cases where there is concern that people are consenting because of payment and not because they wish to take part; and
  • develop a general policy on describing payments in the consent process.

Beyond these ethics issues, there are some practical and legal considerations to be addressed in paying participants and in using techniques such as ‘free prize draws’.

Paying participants

Guidance published by the Department of Health in 2006 makes a distinction between ‘reimbursement of expenses’ and ‘payment for time, skills, and expertise’. If you are making payments (as distinct from reimbursement) to members of the public engaged in your research, then you need to be aware of the legal frameworks that apply, and it is worth reading guidance published by the INVOLVE website on payment for involvement in research. To summarise, payments – not reimbursements – are:

  • subject to Employment Law;
  • counted as taxable income (and thus also subject to National Insurance); and
  • may affect entitlement to state benefits and allowances.

To highlight these complexities is not to say that people should not be properly paid for their contribution to a project. The Department of Health guidance (p10) states that:

Paying someone might be complex, but it should not detract from the principle that offering payment may be entirely appropriate. Payment where appropriate should be offered, and the individual allowed to make an informed choice as to whether to accept it.

Prize draws and lotteries

The Market Research Society has published useful guidelines on using free prize draws, worth reading if you are planning to use this approach. The first thing to be clear of is whether you are using a prize draw, or a lottery.

  • free prize draws do not come under the 2005 Gambling Act, and are free from regulatory control;
  • lotteries are subject to regulation under the Gambling Act, and are defined in law as having three key elements:
    • people are required to pay tparticipate;
    • one or more prizes are allocated tthe participants in the scheme; and
    • prizes are allocated wholly by chance.

What counts as ‘free’?

The Gambling Act stipulates that entry is free only if there is no premium charge over what it would normally cost to use the particular method of communication. Thus, participants can be required to pay standard postage or call charges – although if you are concerned with addressing non-response bias, it is undoubtedly better to ensure there is no cost to participants from your research.

Summing up

The Market Research Society guidelines offer a clear and detailed guide, and are worth reading if you are planning to incorporate a free prize draw in your study methods. However, the following key points are worth highlighting here:

  • Failure to fully complete an interview or questionnaire should not disqualify a respondent from entry to a free prize draw. You need to make clear that potential participants can enter the prize draw even if they don’t answer the questions in the survey.
  • Respondents must be clearly informed, before participating, of:
    1. the closing date for receipt of entry;
    2. the nature of the prizes;
    3. if a cash alternative can be substituted for any prize;
    4. how and when winners will be notified of results; and
    5. how and when winners and results will be announced.
    All this information needs to be clearly set out in your information sheet, so that participants have it to keep.
  • The closing date for entry should be fixed – you can’t extend it simply because you haven’t yet had the number of responses that you hoped for.