We’ve all heard the old adage “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” Although most people direct this phrase at children, it can just as well be applied to conducting research. It’s all ethical—until the risks outweigh the potential benefits. It’s all fair—until your participant compensation becomes coercion. It might seem like common sense delineates these areas clearly, but sometimes our good intentions can obfuscate ethical from unethical. That’s why it’s necessary to thoroughly think through these considerations prior to conducting research or an evaluation. 

Do the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks to participants? 

You may not be conducting medical research where the risks can be physical, but that simply means potential risks might be harder to identify. Your responsibility as the evaluator is to 1) eliminate unnecessary risk, and 2) minimize necessary risk. So how do you identify it?

Federal regulations define risk as, “The probability of harm or injury (physical, psychological, social, or economic) occurring as a result of participation in a research study. Both the probability and magnitude of possible harm may vary from minimal to significant.” Risk could include threat of deportation if ICE enters your library, stigmatization if someone is outed for being LGBTQ+, embarrassment if someone is illiterate, or financial loss if someone misses work. It’s impossible to eliminate all risk, but our job as evaluators is to ensure that “the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the research are not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests.” This is called minimal risk

Let’s say you’re evaluating the effectiveness of a job skills course that your library has been conducting virtually during the pandemic. You feel more comfortable conducting interviews in-person vs. online or by phone,  and your library is allowing limited capacity indoors. Wearing a mask and staying six feet apart does minimize risk for participants, but is this a necessary risk? Would eliminating this risk negatively impact your evaluation? These are questions you should continually ask yourself when designing your evaluation. 

In an effort to eliminate unnecessary risk, you decide instead to conduct interviews virtually. Some of your evaluation participants are undocumented immigrants who are very afraid about their personal information being leaked. You’ve done what you can to ensure that their privacy will be maintained (read more on that here), but you know there is always a chance that information gets out, particularly when using the internet and different video call platforms. This is a situation where you need to assess whether the benefit of these individuals participating outweighs the potential risk. Their participation might mean that you identify critical gaps where your course did not address this community’s needs. With their data, the next offering of the course could better serve them and help other undocumented individuals, which is a huge benefit. You can minimize the risk of their participation by conducting the interview over the phone and assigning them an alias in any recordings or notes. Now their access to benefit outweighs potential risks and these participants may feel more comfortable agreeing to participate.  

Is it coercion or compensation?

Under no circumstances should you coerce individuals into participating in an evaluation. It should always be voluntary and individuals should have the choice to stop participating at any time. However, it is appropriate to compensate individuals for their time and effort. It is also appropriate to reimburse participants for any out-of-pocket expenses associated with their participation in the evaluation (such as transportation or parking). 

While reimbursement is pretty straightforward, compensation can be a bit hazy. The important things to remember are that 1) in no case should compensation be viewed as a way of offsetting risk, and 2) the level of compensation should not be so high as to cause a prospective participant to accept risks that would not be otherwise accepted in the absence of compensation. These same principles also apply to parents whose children are prospective participants. 

If your library doesn’t have the means to compensate or reimburse participants, that doesn’t mean you can’t do an evaluation. Whether you are offering compensation or not, this should be discussed in the informed consent process. If you do not have money to compensate individuals, you may choose to explain why and be sure to express your appreciation for their time and effort in other ways. 

We’ve now covered some of the most common issues in research ethics: privacy, informed consent, working with vulnerable populations, risks, and compensation. However, if you have any questions that weren’t answered in these posts, please reach out at LRS@LRS.org.