Compensating Participants and Offering Other Forms of Support

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Should participants be paid or otherwise compensated for the time and effort involved in participating in research?

This has been a longstanding concern and source of contention in the social sciences, public health and medicine, and other affiliated disciplines. 

On the one hand, compensating individuals for participating in research—which includes both monetary and non-monetary (e.g., meals, transportation) payments—can have a number of positive outcomes for a study. Compensation can encourage participation, helping with timely recruitment and higher response rates. This is particularly beneficial for recruiting hard-to-reach subjects and underrepresented groups. Reimbursement for subjects’ expenses or time can also cover the costs associated with participation and ultimately reduce participant burden.​1​ Furthermore, providing compensation acts as a tangible benefit to individuals choosing to participate in a study.​2​

Woman handing another persona a check

On the other hand, there are certain ethical dilemmas associated with this practice. The main ethical concern relates to coercion, as offering money may impact the decision-making ability of participants, particularly among economically disadvantaged populations. Low-income individuals, or those experiencing major economic losses resulting from a disaster, may be more likely to misrepresent themselves, falsify their experiences, or accept research-related risks in order to obtain compensation.​1,3,4​ Coercion of low-income groups can also lead to overrepresentation of these participants and impact the generalizability of the results. However, the same argument about generalizability could also be made when offering little to no participant compensation. This can potentially skew the sample distribution away from lower-income groups who cannot afford to allocate time and resources to participate in a study.​1​ 

The concerns surrounding coercion from compensation have led certain hazards and disaster researchers to question the ethics of participant compensation entirely.​3–5​ Some scholars argue that compensation should only cover reimbursement for expenses directly related to participation and the time involved,​4​ whereas others believe that offering other forms of support beyond monetary resources, such as helpful information and referral to resources, may be more ethical.​3​ What is clear is that when a community experiences devastating losses resulting from a disaster, compensation can assist participants in obtaining necessities that may have been lost. 

An important ethical consideration is whether compensation should be commensurate with need.​6​ This assumes an equitable approach but may be perceived as unfair by other participants. For instance, if other participants were to find out about the unequal compensation, it may cause tension between the researchers and study participants or among the study participants themselves.​5​

Please complete the following assessment before moving onto the next topic.

  1. 1.
    Barron Ausbrooks CY, Barrett EJ, Martinez-Cosio M. Ethical issues in disaster research: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Population Research and Policy Review. 2009;28(1). doi:10.1007/s11113-008-9112-7

  2. 2.
    Resnik DB. What is ethics in research & why is it important? National Institute Of Environmental Health Sciences. Published online 2020. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/resources/bioethics/whatis/index.cfm

  3. 3.
    Lavin RP, Schemmel-Rettenmeier L, Frommelt-Kuhle M. Conducting research during disasters. Annual Review of Nursing Research. 2012;30(1):1-19. doi:10.1891/0739-6686.30.1

  4. 4.
    O’Mathúna DP. Conducting research in the aftermath of disasters: Ethical considerations. Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine. 2010;3(2). doi:10.1111/j.1756-5391.2010.01076.x

  5. 5.
    Browne KE, Peek L. Beyond the IRB: An Ethical Toolkit for Long-Term Disaster Research. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. 2014;32(1):82-120.

  6. 6.