Are there any ethical guidelines that would prohibit the use of penalties against individuals who sign up for a research study but have not yet provided consent and are therefore not yet officially subjects?

Please provide references.


In the psychology department, we have an online recruitment system, whereby every time a student signs up for a research study for extra (course) credit they occupy a 'seat' out of a limited number of seats. This limitation exists due to the fact that research credits are distributed fairly among researchers to ensure that everyone is able to recruit in proportion to their needs.

Online studies pose a particular challenge for the recruiter because the participant is afforded the opportunity to complete the study by the end of the semester and there is no guarantee that they will follow through. The problem is that many students do not have the courtesy to cancel before the deadline if they decide they no longer wish to participate, and in doing so they are preventing other students from participating. Not only is this behavior not fair to other students, but it also means a loss of potential subjects for the recruiter. Although this scenario applies to online studies, there are certainly other scenarios where careless behavior results in major inconveniences to the recruiter, for example people not showing up for appointments (i.e., in-person studies, experiments).

If those signed up for a study have not yet provided consent (i.e. are not yet officially subjects), what are they protected against? Specifically,

1) Is it admissible to issue penalties, such as, for instance, a loss of research credits?

2) Is it admissible to communicate a general warning to all individuals using the system that a failure to cancel their seat or to show up for appointments could involve unspecified penalties? (In this case, there would be no penalties but the warning would serve as a deterrent.)

  • Obviously you should avoid threatening with penalties when you "don't intend / can't" carry them on.
    – o0'.
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 15:31
  • @Lohoris It's a Kiyosaki penalty: we will talk disparagingly about you behind your back.
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 15:59
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    It is possible that both prospective subjects' withdrawal would create problems for you could be true, and that it would be unethical to punish prospective subjects' withdrawal beyond not giving any reward. You mention that not showing creates problems for you, and it very well may, but that does not mean that people cannot be allowed to withdraw without penalty. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 21:44
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    N.B. If I were doing recruitment, I would calculate for a now-show percentage factored in. Ergo, if records in your department say that 20% of people will be no-shows (I would expect that others in your department might have figures for this), I would recruit for 125% of your need + maybe a safety margin. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 21:49
  • @JonathanHayward Having a safety margin is doable but complicated because as a researcher you are assigned a certain number of research credits. If you recruit past 100% (of what you have available), you are essentially taking credits from other researchers, which means a loss of participants for them.
    – AlexR
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 22:35

3 Answers 3


From the US Code of Federal Regulations (45 CFR 46), in the section on seeking consent:

An investigator shall seek such consent only under circumstances that provide the prospective subject or the representative sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate and that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence.

Note the use of the phrase "prospective subject" - this clause refers to the investigator's conduct towards potential subjects who have not yet given consent. Presumably a penalty or threat of a penalty would constitute "coercion or undue influence."

Specifically regarding research participation for credit, the APA Code of Conduct Section 8.04 (a different section of which was mentioned by Stephan Kolassa in his answer) says

(a) When psychologists conduct research with clients/patients, students or subordinates as participants, psychologists take steps to protect the prospective participants from adverse consequences of declining or withdrawing from participation.

(b) When research participation is a course requirement or an opportunity for extra credit, the prospective participant is given the choice of equitable alternative activities.

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    +1 for section 8.04 of the APA guidelines, which is directly relevant to the OP's field and which I completely missed. I'll be deleting my answer, which is misleading. Thanks! Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 8:14
  • The BPS Code of Human Research Ethics 10.1.3 is a little more flexible and allows for an equitable alternative to be a different class (or possibly major).
    – StrongBad
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 13:34
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    Those are good citations, but it's not clear to me whether they actually apply (in theory or in practice) to "penalties" that are directly related to the compensation participating in the research. A strict reading of those guidelines would suggest that you would have to pay/credit everyone just for asking them to participate, regardless of whether they actually said yes, since not compensating them would be an "adverse consequence" relative to the compensation they would have received had they participated. As my answer shows, universities do in fact "penalize" students in this way.
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 21:16
  • I'd go so far as to say that the "alternative activities" should match, as closely as possible, the educational objectives that participation in a study would have. If there are no educational objectives associated with participation, I strongly feel that participation has no place as a course requirement. Courses are to educate students. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 22:59
  • @ScottSeidman: that's not how it works, though, is it? The reason students are... "encouraged"... to participate as subjects is not because there's a direct benefit to them in being a subject. It's because there's a reciprocal benefit among the students, all of whom need subjects, if they all serve as such. You can't "closely match" the educational benefit, since benefit is to have subjects of their own in return. It's a trade in kind, and exchange for things someone "needs" is coercive (side project: propose this maxim to a drunk Libertarian). Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 23:18

Your question title is about consent, but the situation you describe seems somewhat more specific: you're saying that the person signed up for an experiment, and then, not only did they not consent, they didn't show up for the session at all.

I don't believe it would be unethical to deny students participation credit for not showing up to the experiment session they signed up for. If they show up but then decide, based on the information they receive there, that they don't want to do it, that would be a different story and it would be hard to deny them credit.

I found several examples of departments doing basically just what you describe. Here is a PDF describing the research participation requirements for the Pysch 1 class at UC Santa Barbara. This includes a reference to the sort of "unspecified penalties" you mention:

As a participant, if you chronically fail to show up for experiments, the repercussions may include, but are not be limited to, removal from the research participation pool.

A similar page at Hunter College says:

The first time you fail to notify the researcher of your expected absence and do not show up, your name will be submitted to the administrators of the pool. The second time you fail to fulfill your responsibility to notify the researcher, you will lose the option of participating in research for the remainder of the semester, and will be required to read the articles and take the quizzes. If you do not cancel or show up for the studies, you will be penalized by having to participate in an additional hour of research (or do an additional article and quiz) for each additional appointment missed.

Yet another page at George Washington University says:

If you don’t show up on time for a study, and you have not cleared this in advance with the subject pool administrator, you will lose one point of credit. In other words, if you don't show up on time for one study, you will have to earn one additional point of credit to make up for what you lost.

Googling for psych "research requirement" "receive credit" "show up" and variations thereof will lead you to pages at more schools.

Most of these policies appear to allow some leeway in that they suggest students won't be penalized for a single no-show, but only after multiple no-shows. No doubt you should discuss this with your school's IRB. However, the above examples make it pretty clear that there are reputable institutions that do penalize students who don't show up for experiments they said they would do.

  • I am surprised to see no comments or upvotes on this answer. Clearly, the fact that many universities do use penalties suggests that the issue is not so clear-cut. Are they all breaking ethical guidelines? How do they justify this practice? (These are questions worth exploring)
    – AlexR
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 20:54
  • @AlexR guidelines are just that, guidelines. Note that the APA and the BPS have different guidelines and I bet the guidelines of the AMA are also different. They presumably justify the behaviour because the penalty is related to not showing up and not to withholding consent.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 8:43

Our students are required to be a participant for 10 hours of psychology studies or to complete an alternative assignment. We use an online system to administer the subject recruitment and allocation. The recruitment protocol for studies simply say that the online system will be used. Since the IRB is very familiar with the system, no more details are needed. This is the same as if we the Mechanical Turk is used, but if a less well known system is used, the IRB will want lots of details.

The way the online system works is when a subject gives consent, meets all the inclusion criteria, does not meet any of the exclusion criteria, completes the study, and is debriefed, the experimenter ticks a box on the online system. This gives the student credit. If the box is not ticked, the student does not get credit. The students are only allowed to register for the 10 required hours. If for some reason a student does not get credit for some of the hours they registered for (e.g., because they did not show up, refused to consent, or did not meet the requirements), then they can write a 1000 word pass/fail paper related to the experiment. This way they are not directly penalised for not showing up. The alternative assignment and its marking were negotiated with the IRB. The IRB also requires we notify them every time a submitted alternative assignment is given a failing grade.

  • Actually, this is in the APA code of ethics cited by StephanKolassa - "When research participation is a course requirement or an opportunity for extra credit, the prospective participant is given the choice of equitable alternative activities." Nice example of how it can be done.
    – ff524
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 8:04
  • I would wonder what happens when you get a much shorter answer back indicating the student had reason to believe the research was invasive junk.
    – Joshua
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 18:15
  • @Joshua they would fail, we would show it to the IRB and they would most likely agree that we are not being unreasonable.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 19:00
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    This arrangement applies when participation is a requirement (and most likely for introductory psych courses only), but what about research participation that is optional (e.g. for extra course credit)? -- the latter is much more prevalent.
    – AlexR
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 22:22
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    I never liked forced inclusion in research studies for credit. If participation in research has an educational objective, then alternate work designed to MEET THE SAME EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVE needs to be offered (like working on the investigative side of a similar study). If participation for credit has nothing to do with education, than my uneducated opinion is that the subject pool is being coerced. The concept of voluntariness is a big part of the Respect for Persons principle expressed in the Belmont Report. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 22:55

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