I want to conduct some research and will apply for IRB approval. But, finding money to offer incentives for respondents may be difficult. I do not mind using personal funds as the total amount is very low.

  1. Is there any ethical issue with using personal funds for research?

  2. Do you know of any IRB related regulations that address the above issue?

If it matters I am at a US educational institution.

  • 1
    Just to be clear, since you say human subjects. What sort of research are we talking about, here? Medical? Psychological? Economic?
    – Moriarty
    Jun 30 '14 at 12:00
  • 2
    Psych and/or econ type research. Not medical.
    – user18059
    Jun 30 '14 at 12:01
  • 1
    At least outside of the USA, I've seen plenty of offers for participants to be compensated with shopping vouchers for their time. I've never seen cash offered, probably because that would call into question whether your participants are employees.
    – Moriarty
    Jun 30 '14 at 12:02
  • 3
    Well, the question still remains the same even in those contexts as vouchers, gift cards etc can be bought using personal funds.
    – user18059
    Jun 30 '14 at 12:06
  • 2
    @Moriarty: I'm in Europe and we generally hand out cash, with the sole exception if study participants are employees of the university conducting the study, as for them, it is assumed they use their working time and thus are not allowed to be remunerated double. (That said, while it is my money that I hand out at first, I'd consider it inacceptable not getting refunded for those expenses by the university later on.) Jun 30 '14 at 15:22

I've sat on an IRB panel and we've never been concerned about the source of funds for participant gift-cards.

p.s. Note I'm an ethnographic fieldworker and I often buy small gifts for the families and individuals who participate in my projects. It's too much of a pain to pay for these out of my research account (why do you want 15 stuffed bears and keychains?) so I buy them out of pocket.


I assume you are interested in additional ethical issues with paying subject out of pocket as opposed to paying subjects from a grant.

I have never listed where the subject "payments" (today's term is "inconvenience allowance") come from on an IRB form and have never been questioned about it in either the US or UK. This is not an issue that I would bring up with the IRB and it is not even clear where you would list this in the IRB applications that I am familiar with.

There may be some tax and liability issues associated with paying out of pocket. While I would not bring this up to the IRB, I would mention it to your research support officer. If/when I over spend on my overhead account I can make up the difference from my pay check. I think it is even possible to divert some of my salary directly into my overhead account, even if I haven't hit zero balance. This way the university is officially paying for the research, they take care of the research liability, and any potential taxes the subjects need to pay. There might even be tax savings for you.


As a counterpoint, the last IRB application I filled out (at a US university) had a section asking where the money was coming from (grant, start-up account, departmental funds, industrial partner, etc).

From the questions, I got the impression that the IRB wanted to

  1. Avoid conflicts of interest, Taking money from industrial sponsors might introduce some potential biases)

  2. Be sure that the money would actually be available. It might put the university in a tight spot if you promised subjects money or reimbursement, but could not afford to pay them.

Number one probably isn't an issue for you, and #2 might be solvable by putting the money "in escrow" with the department.


I would like to supplement everyone's excellent answers by saying that sometimes, especially in social science experiments, the choice of incentive is very important. Importantly, the choice of funding source has also been explored somewhat in research methodology literature.

An influential paper in this regard is linked here (paywall) and here (free!) A brief summary of this paper is that, it takes 3 popular incentive choices (in social science for experiments) and looks at the choice of said incentive versus data collection and sampling. These incentives are cash, gift certificate via snail mail and gift certificate via email. The results indicate the cash might be the most effective incentive structure in similar experiments.

In response to a comment, I would state that does exist a relationship between the funding source and incentive choice. In one of our previous projects, where the funding came from a "named" foundation, we had a condition to use funding for participant recruitment in a very specific way.

Disclaimer: The first author is my previous adviser.

  • 1
    Answers should be able to stand alone without links. Can you summarize some of the interesting findings for us? Jul 1 '14 at 4:04
  • 3
    It is not clear to me how this answers the question. The question talks asks about the ethics of using personal funds to pay for incentives. Presumably the OP will use the most appropriate incentive.
    – StrongBad
    Jul 1 '14 at 9:10
  • @StrongBad I believe that there is atleast, a partial relationship. Personal funds can determine the choice of incentive, which in turn has been shown to influence data collection and sampling and hence, by extension, results.
    – Shion
    Jul 1 '14 at 9:58
  • @AustinHenley Added a summary and made appropriate changes.
    – Shion
    Jul 1 '14 at 10:04
  • 1
    Even if there is a "relationship between the funding source and incentive choice" this still doesn't answer the question, which is about the ethics of a particular funding source.
    – ff524
    Jul 1 '14 at 10:12

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