Should you Incentivize Participation in Research?

The decision whether to provide incentives – monetary or otherwise – for participation in research is an important one. One that not only has ethical considerations, but also practical implications on things like response and recruitment success. The purpose of this short blog is to provide some things to think about as you weigh whether or not incentives are appropriate for your research.

The Benefits of Incentivized Participation

Incentives can be beneficial to both participants and researchers. Incentives increase participation by compensating people for their time and efforts, which essentially means that the recruitment is made easier. There are, of course, plenty of people who would be willing to participate without incentives – simply out of the kindness of their heart and interest in the societal benefits of your research. However, more often than not, people are going to be more willing to give their time if they feel like they are getting something in return. 

Beyond recruitment, there are compelling arguments out there that the right thing to do is to compensate folks simply on principle. In this viewpoint, people should be compensated for their time, energy, expertise, and willingness to assume the risks of participating in an activity like research. In that way, incentives can help shift the researcher-participant relationship away from being an extractive one – that is, thinking that participants are little more than lab rats or data sources for a researchers entertainment and use.

Another reason to consider incentives is that they will likely create a reciprocal relationship – one where participants show up feeling valued, fully engage in the process, and provide high-quality data. This notion recognizes that compensation as a part of any type of work does, generally-speaking, encourage people to work harder. Something that is especially apparent in survey research is that un-incentivized projects tend to draw in only the polar opinions (i.e., people that feel strongly one way or the other about the topic). This can create an issue where the data paints a misleading picture by being influenced heavily by outliers in the data. 

The [Potential] Drawbacks of Incentivized Research

There’s always another side to the coin. Incentives do likely lead to all of the above benefits, however, there are some trade offs that you need to prepare for. The first one is a big ethical one – coercion. It may seem like a stretch, but it is possible for incentives to create a situation where people agree to participate in research, even though they would never agree to it in absence of an incentive. This is particularly true when talking about vulnerable populations like those that are economically disadvantaged. In these circumstances, incentives create a situation where people cannot afford to not participate. This is why incentives – especially large ones – can be quite coercive. If incentives are going to be used, the researcher needs to take care in assessing what compensation is fair and realistic. 

Incentives can also cause a serious issue during recruitment – falsification of qualifications. Think about it, if a researcher is offering a $1000 incentive for an overnight study of people with sleep disorders, potential participants are going to be more likely to lie about their qualifications as a participant (in this case, indicating they have a sleep disorder when they do not). As a result, their data will co-mingle with qualified participant data and result in potentially skewed findings. This is yet another reason why incentives need to be carefully assessed, as they may cause data quality issues.

Another small consideration is whether incentives are actually necessary. Occasionally, participation can be such a small commitment for folks that incentives don’t really make sense. If, however, incentives are to be offered in these instances, researchers often employ a raffle-type approach, whereby participants are entered into a drawing for limited prizes. Beyond those exceptions, If your research focuses on an already invested audience, or if your research (let’s say a survey) is not very burdensome (e.g., it takes only 30 seconds to participate), then you are not really putting the participants out by asking them to provide feedback. From a practical point of view, incentives can exponentially increase the cost of doing research. With that in mind, it is useful to think through whether compensation makes sense.

Key things to keep in mind

Look, we don’t want to say incentives should either be or not be used 100% of the time. It all comes down to the project, methods being used, and obviously having the funds to even offer an incentive. As you weigh whether incentives make sense for your situation, just remember to consider the following [potential] pros and cons:

The Pros

  • They can make recruitment easier
  • They help make research less extractive by compensating folks for their participation
  • They can create a desire on the part of participants to fully engage in the research.

The Cons

  • They can coerce people into participating when they wouldn’t otherwise do so
  • They can lead to unqualified participants sneaking into your study
  • They may not be necessary if participation is a small ask and non-compulsory (i.e, if folks don’t want to participate in a 30-second survey, they can just say no)

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to incentives. There are valid reasons for using/not using incentives in research, but it is important to be aware of some of the most common effects that they can have, as they can have implications on everything from recruitment to data quality. If you would like to learn more about incentive practices, or if you just want to have a conversation about this important topic, please reach out at or hit us up on social media @viableinsights.

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