The Ethics of Paying for Participating in Social-Behavioral Studies: Practical and Ethical Considerations

Dr. Celia Fisher presenting at the Office of Human Research Protections Exploratory Workshop 2022: Beyond Altruism – Exploring Payment for Research Participation.

By: Shahidah Khanom, FGSAS: Ethics and Society

On September 15th, 2022, Fordham University’s Celia Fisher, Ph.D. gave a presentation on ethics of payment for research participation titled, “Paying for Participating Social-Behavioral Studies: Practical and Ethical Considerations,” for the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) Exploratory Workshop 2022: “Beyond altruism – Exploring Payment for Research Participation.” Dr. Fisher, Professor of Psychology, and Director of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education and HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute (RETI), discusses how in social-behavioral non-intervention studies involving marginalized populations, researchers, IRBs, and CABs can determine a fair and equitable payment. However, ethical dilemmas still arise within the interface between such payments and participants’ lived experience.

In her presentation, Fisher explores the following three questions: Are fair payments just or unjust if the researcher knows…

  1. Participants would prefer not to participate, but do so because they need the money or are pressured by outside sources? 
  2.  If populations are recruited because they engage in health compromising behaviors, tell the investigator they will use the payment to engage in these behaviors?
  3.  If community researchers will bear the burden of payment related threats to scientific validity and moral harms?

Dr. Fisher reflects on her own involvement in research that entailed working closely with marginalized communities including work from trainees of the Fordham University HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute (RETI). With respect to females involved in sex work (FSW), she poses the questions of whether fair payment is ethically sufficient if FSWs in dire economic conditions are aware of the risks and benefits and their right to withdraw, sign with a fear because they need money, or fear refusing to participate will negatively impact future research opportunities for payment.

She also described her work with people who inject drugs (PWID), another socially stigmatized and marginalized group of research participants. Through this research, she explores the relationship between the ethnographer and participant and the relational obligations that may require. Additionally, Fisher explored whether ethnographers can justify payment when they are told it will be used to purchase drugs since research is a minimal risk activity compared to other ways that PWID would obtain drugs.

Lastly, Fisher considers the implications found in her research on moral distress amongst frontline community addiction research workers (CRWS). Here she explores how to address issues of payment justice when participants’ economic and health needs place the burden of economic equity on CRWs. She also works to discern how to address the joint effects of participant and CRW economic needs that negatively impact CRW mental health and scientific validity.

To watch the full workshop, please visit the OHRP videocast page, or to watch Dr. Fisher’s presentation, please visit the Session II videocast.

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