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Should you compensate research participants?

OXD UX Designer Hitomi Yokota explores the question, “Should we compensate research participants?” We believe it’s not only essential, but also an ethical requirement.
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Compensation to a research participant promotes diversity, inclusion, and equity

Start with user needs. As human-centred designers at OXD, we interview users, spend time with them, and observe their behaviours. We use those valuable insights to help us develop and improve our products and services. Users are critical to our design process. One of the ways we learn about users is by conducting research projects with them.

But should we compensate the participants of those research programs for their time and knowledge? Is compensation an unethical practice that amounts to bribery? Or, since the improved products and services will benefit the user in the future anyway, isn’t that compensation enough? What if participants are only in it for the monetary reward? Will that skew the research results?

These are the arguments we have heard in discussing research compensation. We’ll outline why it’s important to compensate, how much to pay, when to do it, and how to get that compensation into the hands of your participants.

Why it’s crucial to compensate participants

There are several aspects to consider when thinking about compensation. The Wellesley Institute summarizes three reasons why it’s important to compensate research participants.

1. Shows appreciation and gratitude

Concept: “Focused on acknowledging the contributions of research participants to a research study. Often cast as an honorarium, the intent is to honour a participant’s involvement through a token gift, gift card or payment.”

Benefits: Honours a participant’s time and contribution, shows gratitude.

Risks avoided: Being seen as exploitative.

2. Compensates for labour

Concept: “Identifies the participant’s contribution as a form of paid labour. In this sense, any payment is intended to be compensation for their time and contribution, akin to a wage.”

We’d also like to add that participants sometimes share very personal, vulnerable, and painful experiences to make services better for others like them. Since this knowledge and lived experience isn’t something the researcher might have, it has value and should be compensated in line with any other value exchange based on expertise.

Benefits: Honours a participant’s contributions. Acknowledges a participant’s valuable expertise and experiences.

Risks avoided: Exploiting the unpaid labour of a participant for the project’s gain.

3. Reimburses expenses

Concept: “Focuses on covering any out-of-pocket expenses associated with participation. This can mean that compensation covers travel expenses or childcare but can also be applied to the concept of lost wages.”

Benefit: Makes it easier for people to participate in research.

Risks avoided: Potential decline of participation due to financial restrictions.

Other benefits we’ve observed

Years of experience conducting research projects has allowed us to witness other benefits for participant compensation.

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1. Fairness between researchers and participants

Concept: Design researchers are paid in exchange for their time and the other priorities they give up to conduct a research program. Research participants could have spent their time doing something else, like being with family or working. If they aren’t compensated for these lost opportunities, it implies that their time and priorities aren’t as valuable. (Sarah Fathallah: Why Design Researchers Should Compensate Participants)

Benefits: Treats participants fairly with respect, reduces power dynamics between researchers and participants.

Risks avoided: Unfair and exploitative dynamic (you’re getting paid; participants are providing unpaid labour).

2. Equitable access to research participation and benefits

Concept: “The principle of Justice holds that particular individuals, groups or communities should neither bear an unfair share of the direct burdens of participating in research, nor should they be unfairly excluded from the potential benefits of research participation. Inclusiveness in research and fair distribution of benefits and burdens should be important considerations for researchers, research ethics boards (REBs), research institutions and sponsors.” (Government of Canada: TCPS 2 (2018) – Chapter 4: Fairness and Equity in Research Participation)

Lack of compensation equals lack of access to research participation. People with low income face a bigger barrier to attending research sessions, especially if they aren’t compensated. On the other hand, some people have more time and money than others, and may not have to worry about giving away one to four hours of their time. (Government of Ontario: User Research Guide) Therefore, research skews to those who are more affluent and privileged, while the marginalized remain marginalized.

Benefits: Removing barriers to participation for certain demographics. Research outcomes that are more representative of wider populations, equitable benefits for wider groups.

Risks avoided: Research only benefitting a particular population, while ignoring others who may have different unheard needs. Reinforcing the cycle of systemic oppression.

Tips for designing your research program

As explained, there are many benefits and considerations to make around participant compensation in research. Here are some recommendations to help you design your research program.

Pay your participants.

It’s the right thing to do. It creates better outcomes all around for your service, project outcomes, your organization, and the people you serve.

Advocate for research participant compensation.

Talk to your project sponsors and clients about the importance of compensation, using the points we’ve shared.

Include compensation in your research plan and budget.

Don’t overlook planning and logistics. Compensation adds an additional factor to consider during the planning process.

How should we compensate our research participants?

We discussed why providing compensation to research participants is the right thing to do. It helps promote equality and representative research outcomes. But how should we go about compensating participants?

What does compensation look like for a research project?

“Compensation is a predetermined form of payment provided to research participants for their engagement in a research activity.”

Columbia University: ​​Tips for Compensating Research Participants

The form of payment can include reimbursement for the participants’ travel (for example, a preloaded public transit pass), electronic gift cards, or cash.

OXD Illustration in shades of yellow and orange and black for research participant compensation concept. Shows three people through the windows of a bus.

It’s often simplest to give people cash during in-person interviews or research workshops. The Wellesley Institute explains that cash is ideal for vulnerable populations: “Providing gift cards, particularly to participants deemed vulnerable, can result in inadequate and unfair compensation. Cash is an ideal way to recognize the contributions of participants.” (Fair & Inclusive Compensation for Research Participants: A Guideline)

Participants deemed vulnerable may not have a permanent address and may not want an e-transfer. When determining the form of compensation, discuss as a team—does the participant group we’re engaging with need immediate cash? If you decide to go with gift cards as compensation, make sure that the gift cards are for the stores or websites the participants frequently use and have access to. (Australian Government Digital Transformation Agency: Paying incentives for user research)

For example, when we worked with farmers across BC, we offered gift cards for coffee shops. Some farmers in rural areas mentioned that Starbucks stores didn’t exist near their homes and that they preferred Tim Hortons. These simple details matter when it comes to the meaning and value of the compensation, beyond the face value of the gift card.

Tell participants upfront on how compensation will be paid. Be clear about the specifics of what it is and how they will receive it.

How much should the compensation be for a research participant?

When deciding the amount of compensation, it’s important to consider what’s appropriate for the group. It may look different depending on the participants. Although we want to compensate fairly and show appreciation, “no compensation of any type should have any coercive effect to participate in the study. The amount or value of this compensation should not be so high as to unduly influence a potential participant’s decision to participate in the study.” (FHI 360 Research Ethics Training Curriculum)

Seek input from community representatives before beginning the research to determine an appropriate amount.

What resources are available for research participant compensation of digital services?

Look at these public sector guidelines in Canada for the current guidelines and common amount of compensation for an hour session:

Besides paying participants for their time, it’s suggested to compensate for “participants’ research-related expenses and be flexible and responsive to participants’ varying needs. Researchers should, for example, cover travel costs, child or respite care, and food if needed.” (The Wellesley Institute)

You may also want to take into account the wage cost of someone who is participating as a way of calculating the stipend.

How do I get the money to the participant?

Who will distribute the compensation and how will it be delivered? Is it going to be the researcher or the client? What logistics are required (for example, collecting their email or home addresses)? When you collect any personal information, make sure to have protocols in place to treat and store it securely.

For more on storing personal information when doing research, read the Government of Canada’s TCPS 2 (2018) – Chapter 5: Privacy and Confidentiality policy as an example. If you’re in BC and doing research in a private sector context, you should be familiar with the Personal Information Protection Act. If you’re doing public sector work, you should be in compliance with Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA) and have likely already covered some of this in completing your Privacy Impact Assessment for your project.

When do I compensate the participant?

Another consideration to make is the timing of distribution. Will you distribute compensation before or after the session? If you are sending out a gift card, how long will participants need to wait? Make sure to let them know when to expect the payment.

The Government of the UK recommends giving participants compensation at the start of the research session. This avoids any suggestion that participants have to respond in a particular way to get their compensation. 

Are there any exceptions?

As a team, determine circumstances under which participants may or may not be compensated. For instance, determine whether to pay the participant when they need or want to leave research, and up to what point.

Columbia University’s Tips for Compensating Research Participants provides examples of exceptions.

Example 1: “You may leave the interview at any time. Participants who complete 75% of the survey questions or more will receive a $20 gift card.”

Example 2: “You may leave the study at any time. All eligible participants, regardless of whether they leave the study early, will receive a $10 preloaded METROcard.”

Let’s recap

OXD Illustration in shades of yellow and orange for research participant compensation concept. Shows money icon on left, then a giftcard to the right, then a check, then a metro card.

We covered some of the logistics of delivering compensation to research participants. When planning research and preparing for participant compensation, decide with the team:

  • The form of compensation (is it cash, a gift card, a cheque, or something else?)
  • The amount (what is an appropriate value for the group?)
  • The delivery (who delivers the compensation?)
  • The timing (when do participants get compensated?)
  • Any exceptions

Lastly, make sure you communicate these points clearly and upfront to your participants to avoid confusion. Include the information in the recruitment advertisement and screening conversations.

Providing compensation to a research participant means doing things right, so you can do the right thing. By designing your compensation process around these key elements, you’ll ensure the experience of being a part of your research is as well designed as its outcome.

Want to learn more about compensating research participants?

If you’d like to learn more about creating the conditions for more fair and equitable research, or if you have questions or feedback, reach out to us.