Lecture on ethical incentives in research studies

In a seminar hosted by the Office of Research Integrity, international health doctor Brandon Brown discussed how much payment or incentive is ethical in research studies. Brown also discussed his idea of creating a database that would provide information on the incentives given to participants. This idea is a possible solution to the problems that researchers face when deciding what incentives are reasonable and fair.

Brown began his talk by explaining how a research project he did in Lima, Peru inspired him to begin looking into how incentives influence a researcher’s ability to recruit participants and how they affect the study itself. He found that although his work was very similar to two other studies being conducted in the area, the difference in incentives, such as health care and gifts, drew in varying amounts of participants to the various studies

According to Brown, “(participants) said the primary reason for them joining the study was the cervical cancer screening, so sometimes monetary incentives aren’t the only thing.” An example he gave of this was the Tuskegee Experiments, where participants were motivated to join the study because of the health care incentives, despite the possible health risks; part of the Tuskegee Experiments infected African-American men with syphilis without their prior knowledge.

In addition to people looking for health care as an incentive, there are those who seek out monetary incentive. According to ethicists this can skew the data and also jeopardize the study itself since the participants might not be as enthusiastic about adhering to the rules. This allows participants to lie and potentially take shortcuts.

These factors contributed to Brown’s desire to create public records on the quantity and type of incentives people are given, who participates and other factors relevant to researchers. He also wants to create a tool that can determine the appropriate amount for a monetary incentive. “The tool can also empower participants and community leaders to make decisions on whether or not they want to join a study based on what has been approved in other studies,” said Brown.

Another reason why Brown came up with the idea to create a database of incentives is because researchers have a difficult time determining what an appropriate and ethical incentive is for their study. Brown compared coercion with the use of incentives to the fable of Hansel and Gretel: “for the children, the study might be coercive because there is an excessive offer, there is poor judgement, because they might not know what’s going on and there is a risk of serious harm.”

He believes this problem can be combatted if there is a database containing information on similar studies and the incentives they provided. He hopes to possibly create a tool that outputs an approved amount that is supported by previous studies.

One faculty member in the crowd suggested that instead of going to the researchers for information on the study, they could “start with the participants, because they are the ones participating in the study.” Brown agreed that this can determine whether the participants felt the incentive was fair and that it could be a “small step forward to enhancing the tool.”

Brown feels that this is unexplored territory and there has not been enough research done on the idea, stating, “I may think this idea is great, but the actual user might think this is a waste of time, so I will have to have more discussions with the stakeholders.”


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