Ethics versus Permissions

Today we’ve been discussing ethics and research. I’m very happy to see ethics being discussed in research articles, but from the perspective of someone not in an environment ‘governed’ by IRB decisions, we’re following the developments with some concern.

Let me be clear, ethics in research is a good and essential part of what we’re doing. What is worrying, though, is the formalization of ethics decisions to the extent that a commission decides and approves which research is ethically legitimate and gets a permission to go ahead. No permission, no research.

Increasingly, journals ask for IRB approval when we submit our research to them. To the extent that this encourages a discussion of research ethics and practices to match, I welcome this. To the extent that it takes one way of doing research ethics for granted (the way of IRB approvals), I’m not so sure.

A challenge in interdisciplinary panels is that we mean quite different things when we use the same terminology, like “covert research”. Because it’s formalized, there is a real risk that the instruments we use for ethical research — like informed consent forms — become a principle in themselves, not the underlying concerns for the respect for people. With that, we drive researchers to find creative ways to fulfil the formal requirements, but we do not necessarily encourage them to think about the ethical implications of the research.

When we’re in the logic of permissions and approvals, the incentives for the researchers are simply to follow a certain procedure. For the institutions, the incentives are to minimize the risk of being sued, and this may not necessarily align with ethical research practices. Will we soon have to submit a DOI for the approvals when we submit to journals as proof that we’ve followed the procedures, just so that we can demonstrate we’re not to blame? It won’t be about ethical guidance when we feel we need it, or a comforting second opinion, but a matter of form. Is there still time to take matters in our own hands and design research ethics from the bottom up? Or is the IRB way inevitable?

Salganik, Matthew J. 2017. Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Panicking for Half an Hour

The other day I was finishing off supplementary material for an accepted article, and had a major panic for half an hour. It all started with my adding a simple frequency table of the outcome variable: a binary variable. When I checked the PDF it turned out that I have miscoded the outcome variable (at least this is what it looked like) — instead of 60% 1s, I had 40% 1s. What to do? No, I didn’t think the substantive results would have been completely different, so I could have done major work on the page proof, replacing every number in the paper. For a moment I considered ‘unseeing’ what I discovered and bet on the likely case that nobody ever would replicate my findings despite my making all the code and data available. I could even have removed that line where I promise the replication code during the page proof. Ethically defensible this would not have been. Retraction passed my mind. Fortunately, it turned out that there was a benign reason. After going back to and quadruple checking the questionnaire, the raw data, and all the recoding and code, it turned out that I simply wrongly labelled that table of the outcome variable. Relief and feeling silly for panicking.

Should I pay my interview respondents?

As an interdisciplinary institute, we have recently discussed whether (and under what circumstances) we should pay interview respondents and participants in our studies? Here are a few things I have compiled for this purpose. At this point, I really would like to thank the participants of the Rencontre Scientifique SFM on 28 June 2016 for the discussion and comments.

General Ethical Principles
General ethical principles apply, and the following table reviews a list of general ethical principles taken from the SFM Ethics Guidelines in view of the question of paying interview respondents. The focus is on interview participants in a wider sense to include focus groups, expert interviews, laypersons with expert knowledge, and informants.

Principle Impact of Payment Evaluation
no harm to subjects and researcher not affected by payment neutral
potential benefits to subjects payment clearly as a benefit to subjects positive
informed consent should normally be obtained: participants should be aware of nature of research and their involvement; participants have a right to withdraw consent at any time without giving any reason payment creates incentives to participate when there is no consent; so payment needs to be separated from completion negative
accordance to relevant law and legislation payment is legal, but may be taxable neutral
researchers must respect the rights, dignity, and interests of participants, including assurances of confidentiality and anonymity payment does not affect these obligations on part of the researcher neutral
research involving children should obtain consent from both the parents and the children, consistent with their capacity payment does not affect this neutral
reduce likelihood that research experience is disturbing to participants and others payment does not change this, but may compensate for inadvertent violation of this principle positive
avoid actions that may have deleterious consequences for researchers who come after or undermine reputation of the discipline payment may increase the expectation that other researchers pay (which can undermine future researchers to carry out the same kind of research), payment as such is unlikely to undermine the reputation of the discipline, but may enhance it mixed
ensure that funders appreciate the ethical obligations of researchers not affected, if there is an ethical obligation to pay, this needs to be communicated to the funder – the fact that the project will be more expensive than a competitor’s is no excuse not to follow research ethics neutral

Disciplinary Traditions in Experiments
In experiments, economists almost always pay their participants. Economists worry that without payment there is no real incentive to follow the instructions. With payment there is a possible problem with satisficing.

In psychology, they hardly ever do. Psychologists worry that with payment inherent preferences and motivations are overruled. Without payment there is a potential problem with participants trying to please the researchers.

General Considerations

Participants and their contributions should be respected.

Observation Impact of Payment Evaluation
Respondents in professional capacity are already paid unclear payment not necessary
Respondents in professional capacity may be ordered to participate unclear unclear
People like to talk (about themselves) unnecessary commodification payment not necessary
No obligation to participate, but payments can be interpreted as coercion1 (Boddy et al. 2010), people from poorer background may be more susceptible to this kind of influence undermines informed consent, especially for some parts of society negative
Payment can reduce non-response bias, precisely because payment incites participation (Boddy et al. 2010; Grady 2011). increases participation rates, reduce non-response bias positive
Payment often facilitates recruitment (Grady 2011) facilitates recruitment positive
Is the influence is undue: likely to distort judgement of risks and benefits? Likely to affect giving consent? Payment should never trump freely given informed consent.2 may affect judgement of individuals negative
Reimbursing expenses is different from paying for time, skills, and expertise. The latter are subject to employment law, thus taxable income.3 depends on the form of payment mixed
Payment may lead to fictional accounts4 5 invalid responses negative
Paying creates an obligation that can blur boundaries and undermine trust. undermining trust negative
May skew samples (Grady 2011) skew samples negative
Not paying may introduce bias by excluding participants, e.g. poor who cannot afford to participate, despite having something important to say (Thompson 1996) reduce coverage bias positive

Boddy et al. (2010) suggest: (1) create guidelines when and how payments are made, (2) payment is justified, (3) ensure that those who withdraw are still paid, (4) carefully consider cases where consent may be given only because of the payment

Specific Considerations

In the social sciences it is uncommon to pay interview participants. This, however, does not constitute an ethic statement. Direct costs incurred by participants (e.g. travel expenses) should always be reimbursed.

Sometimes it is necessary to pay to ensure participation (e.g. interviews with prostitutes or taxi drivers (e.g. Gambetta and Hamill 2005), some online survey panels). A similar case is paying for survey respondents, where payment may be necessary to get access.

There are some ideal-typical cases of participants, but in reality the boundaries are fluid: (1) Focus groups, (2) experts in their professional capacity, (3) lay persons with expert knowledge, and (4) informants.

(1) Focus Groups

Participants in focus groups are normally paid. Participants are generally paid a flat amount (depending on the circumstances) to cover travel and a symbolic amount. Focus group participants need to prepare for the focus group, they are asked to come to the venue the researchers specify at a given time (in the other cases considered here, it is the researcher who travels and adjust his or her schedule). The participants are asked to follow the design and have less scope to deviate from it. Payment also creates an informal obligation to turn up, and often motivates participants who would otherwise not participate in such an endeavour despite supporting the research project otherwise: the specificities of a focus group (time, scheduling, and preparations) make it relatively costly to the participants.

(2) Experts in their Professional Capacity

Experts in their professional capacity are not normally paid. There is no reason to. Experts in their professional capacity are in a way paid to participate, but potential direct expenditures (e.g. travel) should be reimbursed if their employer does not cover them. Experts are free to tell the researchers what they want and have more scope to deviate from the questionnaire and participants in a focus group.

(3) Lay Persons with Expert Knowledge

Lay persons with expert knowledge are not normally paid. Lay persons with expert knowledge are like experts in that they are consulted as witnesses and for providing a synthesis – describing the situation of a group, for instance, not (just) about the person in question. They may be active in associations, often on a voluntary basis. At the same time, given their position and expert knowledge, they are often frequently consulted by researchers. They are free, however, to decline participation in a way experts in their professional capacity may not be. They often agree to participate because they have a message to share, and their contribution should be sufficiently recognized. Like with other participants, direct costs (e.g. travel) should always be reimbursed. Lay persons with expert knowledge are free to tell the researchers what they want and have more scope to deviate from the questionnaire and participants in a focus group.

(4) Informants

Informants are not normally paid. Informants are free to decline participation. However, informants can be in a precarious situation (e.g. undocumented migrants). Researchers frequently provide symbolic gestures like vouchers in these situations, but in order not to create pressure to participate, these gestures should probably not be mentioned during recruitment: informants should not participate only or largely because of the rewards. Informants are free to tell the researchers what they want and have more scope to deviate from the questionnaire than participants in a focus group, and contrary to experts and lay persons with expert knowledge, no synthesis is expected on part of the informant.

Should sensitive topics mean more payment? – There is no reason why this should be the case, if anything larger payments can lead to distorted answers.

Should those with higher income receive more payment? – No, payments are allowances and not payments to cover (potential) loss of earnings. The situation is different where access to a group of informants is contingent on payment (e.g. prostitutes).


The decision whether to pay has to be determined on a case-by-case basis

We now recommend that researchers consult the specific consideration above when considering whether to pay participants or not.

1 payment is not coercion (no harm threatened), but may be undue inducement/influence (an offer one cannot refuse, controlling or irresistible influence, strong enough to compel participation against interest) (Grady 2011)

2 money may affect risk assessments and consent (Grady 2011)

3 Free prize draws are frequently used in marketing (not subject to employment laws, not subject to lottery laws). The nature of prizes, cash equivalents, and notification of winners must be clear (Boddy et al. 2010).

4 Film-makers do not pay participants, it’s regarded a “privilege” to tell one’s story, although travel expenses are generally reimbursed; usually there is no money in documentaries; they worry that if you pay, people will tell you what they think you want to hear; experts should be credited; most experts are happy to contribute; when filming with really poor populations, the crew often make a gesture after filming, e.g. food, clothes. Film-makers are worried that paying in advance (or agreeing to pay) leads to fictional accounts.

5 Journalists typically don’t pay. They worry that it affects what people say.

Boddy, J., T. Neumann, S. Jennings, V. Morrow, P. Alderson, R. Rees, and W. Gibson. 2010. The Research Ethics Guidebook: A Resource for Social Scientists.

Gambetta, D., and H. Hamill. 2005. Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish Their Customers’ Trustworthiness. New York: Russel Sage Foundation.

Grady, Christine. 2011. “Ethical and Practical Considerations of Paying Research Participants.” Department of Clinical Bioethics Clinical Center/NIH.

Ruedin, Didier. 2016. “Ethics Guidelines SFM.” SFM University of Neuchâtel.

Thompson, Sonia. 1996. “Paying Respondents and Informants.” Social Research Update 14: 1–5.

This is how we do research ethics at the SFM

At the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies (SFM), we take ethical questions serious. Here I share the guidelines I have put together for the institute in an attempt to formalize and clarify research ethics without becoming an administrative burden. The aim is to encourage all researcher to think about and take research ethics serious, and the guidelines are a synthesis of other ethics guidelines (duly acknowledged).

The guidelines begin with a short and uncontroversial list of ethical principles like “no harm to subjects and researcher” or “informed consent should normally be obtained”. Given that we often do commissioned research at the SFM, it was important to include “ensure that funders appreciate the ethical obligations of researchers”.

The core of the guidelines is a checklist with 11 question. Each question — like “Does the research involve sensitive topics?” — comes with a few examples, and there are three possible responses: yes, uncertain, no. Researchers can tick the appropriate boxes, but it proved useful to use numbers for “yes” and “uncertain” answers to facilitate cross-referencing with part 2 of the guidelines.

The checklist is followed by a list of common cases. This is an important feature of the ethics guidelines to reduce administrative burden. For example, a literature review does not normally require ethical clearance, nor does the secondary analysis of secondary data where individuals are not identifiable. This means that for many projects, the ethical checklist takes only a short moment.

Where some of the answers as “yes” or “uncertain”, researchers fill in part 2. Now more detail is required, including a brief description of the work, but normally the longest part is “Steps taken to address ethical issues”. Here the cross-references come in handy. If I identified 3 issues in part 1, I can now refer to them by number.

The end of the document includes a flowchart to clarify the procedure. In many cases, no checklist is needed, or the checklist can be put on file with only part 1 filled in. Where there are ethical issues, and part 2 is filled in, they are reviewed by the institutional board (“ComCoor”). The board has the possibility to add comments, and the document is put on file by the researcher. In case the board does not feel qualified enough, it can refer the project to the ethics commission of the University.

SMF Ethics Guidelines (PDF)

Planning a Field Experiment? Read These First

Are you planning to run a field experiment, perhaps even on discrimination in hiring decisions? As a complement to our meta-analysis of existing field experiments on ethnic discrimination in hiring, you could do worse than reading two recent working papers by my co-author Eva Zschirnt: In one, she outlines the history of field experiments in much more detail than a journal article can do, in the other she collects ethical considerations in a single place.

Zschirnt, Eva. 2016a. ‘Measuring Hiring Discrimination – A History of Field Experiments in Discrimination Research’. NCCR On the Move Working Paper Series 7 (May): 1–32.
———. 2016b. ‘Revisiting Ethics in Correspondence Testing’. NCCR On the Move Working Paper Series 8 (May): 1–26.
Zschirnt, Eva, and Didier Ruedin. 2016. ‘Ethnic Discrimination in Hiring Decisions: A Meta-Analysis of Correspondence Tests 1990–2015’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42 (7): 1115–34. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2015.1133279.