Research Participants

Research Participants

Ethical considerations and other issues that should be considered when using human subjects in research will be discussed in this module.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the best ways to recruit human research subjects.
  • Discuss ethical considerations in regards to the use of human subjects.
  • List the rights and responsibilities of human research participants.
  • Describe the role of the Institutional Review Board. 


Researchers that plan to use human subjects in their research design have a series of issues that will need to be addressed as the project moves forward.  Some of these issues include where to find research participants, how to recruit them, how to incentivize them, and how to ensure their rights are not violated just to name a few.

The first step will be for the research proposal to be submitted to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for assurance that the research design and methodology is ethically sound and does not violate any rights of the research participants. The use of an IRB also helps to protect the institution and the researchers against potential legal implications from any behavior that may be deemed unethical.

 The researcher must then decide how best to recruit participants.  This will depend greatly on the research question and the methodology.  The researcher will need to identify the target audience and decide upon the best way to reach out to that population.  For example, if the research question was dealing with the use of social media in recruiting students for college, the researcher would want to find ways to reach out on college campuses perhaps by setting up in convenient locations and polling students.  If the research was examining the impact of education and counseling on the outcomes for diabetic patients in a particular clinical, the researcher would reach out directly to the diabetic patients of that clinic, perhaps through mail or internet surveys.  The graph below displays just a few of the ways in which researchers may contact their target audience in an attempt to recruit subjects.   Incentives are often effective when recruiting subjects and can be used to motivate subjects to comply and stay with the project.  The resources on this page provide additional information regarding recruitment of subjects and incentives.

Basic Designs

Slide1.PNGIllustration from Devlin, A. S. (2006). Research methods: Planning, conducting and presenting research. Wadsworth Publishing: Belmont, CA. 

 Research participants have both rights and responsibilities. Once the researcher has recruited subjects, they must be informed of those rights and responsibilities.  Participants should sign an Informed Consent document that outlines the project, the use of the data, any potentials risks and other information that may be deemed important.  This document is necessary for the participant to fully understand the project that they have committed to participate in, as well as important for the researcher in terms of preventing legal implications should problems arise.   For a list of commonly considered rights and responsibilities, click here.  Rights and Responsibilities of Participants

 Recruiting and incentivizing the research participants and ensuring ethical treatment of the research subjects, will give validity to the data collected.  Forethought and planning are critical to the success of the research project as the data will only be as good as the research participants.

Suggested Readings: 

  • Devlin A. (2006)  Research Methods.  Thompson Wadsworth.
  • Fernandez, C., Kodish, E., & Weijer, C. (2003). Informing Study Participants of Research. IRB: Ethics & Human Research.
  • Flory, J., & Emanuel, E. (2004). Interventions to improve research participants' understanding in informed consent for research. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association, 292(13), 1593-1601.
  • Kitzinger, J. (1994). The methodology of focus groups: the importance of interaction between research participants. Sociology of health & illness, 16(1), 103-121.
  • Kitzinger, J. (1995). Qualitative research. Introducing focus groups. BMJ: British medical journal, 311(7000), 299.
  • Sales, B. D., & Folkman, S. E. (2000). Ethics in research with human participants. American Psychological Association.
  • Yancey, A. K., Ortega, A. N., & Kumanyika, S. K. (2006). Effective recruitment and retention of minority research participants. Annu. Rev. Public Health, 27, 1-28.

Resource Links

Research Participants' Rights and Responsibilities - The following link is an excellent example of one research institutions guidelines for working with research participants. 

 Resources for Research Participants - This link contains additional resources that very informative for both researchers and potential research participants.  In particular, this site contains an excellent PowerPoint presentation that fully describes human research including the history, definitions, examples,  potential problems, rights, and responsibilities.

 Successfully Recruiting Research Participants - Inside Higher Ed offers advice and a list of considerations for recruiting research participants.

 Ethics in Human Subjects Research: Do Incentives Matter? - The PDF associated with the link provides a detailed look at ethical issues that arise when using human subjects and looks at whether or incentives are effective and ethical?

 Human Subjects Research - The Guide for Undergraduate Research's website includes the following formation that begins the discussion of the IRB approval process necessary when using human subjects.

 What is an IRB and its Purpose? - What does IRB stand for?  What is the purpose of an IRB and how does a researcher know when they need to use it?

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