Building ethics into the research design

Compensation, rewards or incentives?

Are you going to compensate your research respondents for their time? The question of compensating or paying research participants raises ethics questions, but there is no clear guidance or consensus on this important topic.

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 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 – particularly in survey samples – is that it encourages higher levels of survey responding, and thus a sample that is more representative of the general population than could otherwise be achieved.

A further issue is how the payment is made.  Be aware that cash payments may have implications in terms of, for example, participants’ benefit payments or taxation (if they are seen as ‘income’) and so payment in vouchers may be preferable. 

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 withdraw from the study at any time without losing their payment.  Similarly, if you are having a ‘prize draw’ for returning surveys, you need to make clear that potential participants can enter the prize draw even if they don’t answer the questions in the survey.  The Market Research Society has published useful guidelines on using free prize draws, which are well-worth reading if you are planning to use this approach.

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.