News & Publications

SECG Blog: To pay or not to pay - that is the question

Dr Meg Polacsek
May 2019

Last year, I completed a PhD that focused on the self-management of depression in older adults. I used a grounded theory approach for data collection and analysis, because I wanted to understand the lived experience of older adults and develop a theory that explained their self-management strategies. I conducted my data collection in 2016.

As I was wading my way through the ethics process, I stumbled when it came to whether or how much to pay participants. I’d already been involved in research studies in which participants received reimbursements or gift vouchers, but this was the first time I had a budget which I could allocate to my own study participants. Once I had figured out my approach and obtained approval from the ethics committee, my supervisors encouraged me to write a paper about the decision-making process around paying research participants. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this topic more interesting than it sounds.

My paper on paying research participants was published in 20171, but I’ve come to realise that this issue keeps arising with my colleagues and friends. Most payment practices seem to occur on an ad hoc basis, and ethics committees often have their own views on the process, which are not necessarily reflective of researchers’ views. Mostly, the confusion or disagreement is around the amount and type of payment, but also whether it should be mentioned before or after seeking consent.

I’m going to share some of our key findings with you here.

  • It is increasingly common to provide some form of payment to research participants
  • However, ethics protocols seldom provide clear guidance about paying participants and there is little consistency in determining how payments should be calculated or administered
  • It is very important that the promise of a payment not influence a person’s decision to participate in research

To mitigate the risks involved with paying research participants:

  • Follow national and institutional guidelines.
  • Define the key terms used to describe how participants will be paid (eg, payment, gift, reward or reimbursement).
  • Consider the type of payment you might use. Options include cash, vouchers, reimbursement for expenses, ‘in-kind’ payments (such as meals or transport), raffle or lottery tickets or paying wages.
  • Make sure the nature, amount and method of payment is appropriate to your participants. For example, you should take into account whether your target group is vulnerable to coercion and you could consult local collaborators about culturally appropriate forms of payment for different groups.
  • Include information about the nature, amount and timing of the payment in your participant information and consent forms.
  • Make sure the extent of participation that is required in order to receive the payment.

Although these basic principles do not ensure ethical conduct, I hope they may help you to approach the process with a bit more confidence.

  1. POLACSEK M. , BOARDMAN G. & MCCANN T.V. ( 2017) Paying patient and caregiver research participants: Putting theory into practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 73(4), 847–856. doi: 10.1111/jan.13222

Dr Meg Polacsek currently works in the Social Gerontology Division of the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI). In 2007, Meg left a successful career in corporate communications to become a personal carer in residential and community aged care. Since then, she has worked in policy, quality and health promotion roles. Building on a Master of Health Science (Aged Services), she completed her PhD in 2018. She received the Victoria University Medal for Academic Excellence for her study on the self-management of depression in older adults living in the community. Although her main interest remains the mental health of older adults, her work has expanded to projects concerning the overall health, well-being and quality of life of older adults in different settings and circumstances. Her expertise is in qualitative social research, specifically grounded theory. As a lead and co-author, she has published findings from her own study and research work, and on theoretical and methodological issues in research. Meg has been a member of the AAG Student and Early Career Group communications working group since 2017.

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