Research compensation

Research compensation

When people participate in research, how should they be compensated? Are there ways of doing so that are more or less respectful?

We conducted an online survey experiment in Kenya. We found that cash payments are more respectful than other types of benefit. The amount of cash may not matter all that much. And education levels lead to a lot of variation in people’s experiences of research – the least educated feel it is less respectful.

Only limited research has been conducted on questions of compensation – little of it experimental and hardly any in the Global South. (Valuable qualitative contributions from the literature have been made by Mduluza et al, 2013; Biruk, 2017; Nyangulu et al, 2019; Saleh et al, 2020 – plus one experimental study – Meuleman et al, 2017). Other research has shown that cash transfers are considered more respectful than in-kind aid (Shapiro, 2020).

We asked 425 Kenyan participants to hypothetically imagine taking a 30-minute online survey for one of the following randomized rewards: $2 (control, a typical payment in Kenya), $10 (Treatment 1, a larger payment which has been set as the baseline payment for all research in Malawi), a badge that denotes them as a person who has acted as a spokesperson for their community (T2; social status reward), or a new standpipe to make accessing water more reliable (T3; shared community benefit). 

We then asked participants to rate (1) how likely they were to participate in such a study, (2) how respectful they would find it to be, (3) how much they would enjoy participating in it, and (4) how likely they were to recommend such a study to friends and family, all on a 7 point Likert scale. 

After analyzing the data through regression models, we found that people prefer to be paid in cash. Social status rewards and shared community benefits are not liked. The Social Status rewards negatively affects participants’ perceptions of respectedness (-0.37, p = 0.019), likelihood of participation (coefficient of -0.38, p = 0.032), and likelihood of recommending the survey to family and friends (-0.56, p = 0.0025). Shared community benefits negatively affects participants’ likelihood of participation (-0.30, p = 0.090).

The actual amount of cash may not matter much. Treatment one, $10, did not outperform the control, $2, on any of the outcome variables. When participants make decisions on research participation, recommendation, enjoyment, and perceived respectfulness, they may be doing so more on mode of payment than on actual amount.

Our regression analysis also provided interesting insights into the impact of educational achievement on the outcome variables. Research works best for the more educated. Having some primary school completed negatively affects participants’ likelihood of participation (coefficient of -2.99, p = 0.017), sense of respectedness (-1.995, p = 0.072), enjoyment (-3.10, p = 0.0079), and likelihood of recommending the survey to family and friends (-2.88, p = .028). Having completed primary school has a similar negative effect on the four outcomes, but with a smaller magnitude. Having some secondary education negatively affects only likelihood of participation (-1.12, p = 0.015), and enjoyment (-0.98, p = 0.021), but has no significant effect on sense of respectedness or recommendation behaviors. Only among participants who have completed university education do we find outright positive effects on participating in hypothetical research, with sense of respectedness (0.21, p = 0.093), enjoyment (.27, p = 0.041), and likelihood of recommending to family and friends (0.33, p = 0.028) all coming out positive.

We also asked participants two open-ended questions to understand what reward they would want for a 30 minute online survey, and what they thought of the research being conducted in Kenya. The majority of participants said that the reward they wanted was cash or cash equivalents (airtime, bundles, phones, computers and shopping vouchers). When speaking to the research methodology in Kenya as a whole, participants noted that they think that researchers do not adequately appreciate the time that participants put into the research and that there needs to be a culture that appreciates the time individuals spend to help the researchers. Participants also noted that researchers should make more of an effort to reach different types of people (different age groups, different regions, and those who do not have access to the internet).

While we acknowledge that there are some limitations to our study, primarily in the fact that participants were asked about a hypothetical 30 minute study, we believe our findings add to the growing debate of research compensation. Before organizations conduct research, they should make efforts to ensure that participants are compensated in the means they prefer. Moreover, researchers need to be cognizant of the impact that educational achievement can have on participants’ likelihood of participating in the research, enjoying it, recommending it, and feeling respected by it. And lastly, researchers need to cultivate a culture that respects participants’ time and effort in their work.

There are rich debates going on throughout the social and biomedical sciences about how – and sometimes even whether – people should be compensated for their time. Many ethicists worry that cash payments might represent a form of undue pressure. It is standard practice for some research implementers to give soap, rather than cash (Biruk, 2017). Few of these debates put participants’ voices first. Here, we see the preferences of actual research participants clearly expressed – whatever rich-country researchers may think, these participants would rather be paid in cash. 

By Niyati Patel.

Photo credit Jan Chipchase.

Study resources: