participant cooperation

Research Quality & the Impact of Monetary Incentives

The following is adapted from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 78-79).

Monetary incentives & quality researchGaining cooperation from research participants and respondents is important to the quality of qualitative and survey research. A focus on gaining cooperation helps to mitigate potentially weakened data due to the possibility that the individuals who do not cooperate — do not participate in the research — differ in meaningful ways compared to those who do cooperate. As mentioned in an article posted earlier in Research Design Review, an effective component to the researcher’s strategy for gaining cooperation among participants is the offer of material incentives (e.g., cash, a gift card, prized tickets to a sporting event, donation to a favorite charity).

Although monetary incentives are routinely given to qualitative research participants to boost cooperation, the researcher needs to keep in mind that the offer of a cash (or equivalent) incentive may also jeopardize the quality of the actual focus group discussion, in-depth interview, or observation. The following is one example of how monetary incentives may have the unwanted effect of skewing participants’ responses in an in-depth interview (IDI) study.

Cook and Nunkoosing (2008) conducted an in-person IDI study with 12 “impoverished elders” in Melbourne, Australia to investigate community services for the poor among those “who are excluded or at risk of exclusion from their communities.” Research participants could participate in up to two interviews and were given $20 for each interview.

In reviewing the key findings, the researchers observed many “interview interactions that were atypical.” At least part of these irregularities was attributed to the monetary incentive which, according to Cook and Nunkoosing, helped to create an interview environment where interviewees were motivated “to manage the presentation of self, retain control over the exchange of information, and reduce the stigma of poverty by limiting disclosure and resisting researcher questioning” (p. 421).

The importance of the incentive in the interview process became clear when interviewees volunteered comments such as “I need the $20 . . . ” and critically compared the $20 to better (i.e., higher) cash incentives offered by other research studies. In this way interviewees were in effect “selling” their stories to the interviewer (and, some would say, at a bargain price) which, based on the researchers’ analyses, tainted interviewees’ responses with “stylized accounts” (or “rehearsed narratives”) as well as “minimal disclosure,” as seen in this excerpt from the transcripts (p. 424):
Participant: What did you want to know?
Interviewer: All about you.
Participant: That’s about it, like, there’s not too much.
Interviewer: Do you want to tell me a bit more? I don’t really know who you are yet.
Participant: You do.
Interviewer: Tell me a bit about who you are, what you like, what you don’t like.
Participant: I don’t like him [Gesturing toward the other agency client].

This dialog came towards the end of a 30-minute interview and helps to illustrate “the researcher’s frustration at [their] inability to engage the participant in in-depth discussion” (p. 423).

Research design is always a balancing act involving various trade-offs associated with meeting the key objectives, method(s) and strategy for engaging the target population(s), and the efficient use of available resources. An important researcher skill is understanding the implications of these trade-offs to the integrity of the final data and overall quality of the research investigation. A monetary incentive may be highly effective in securing participation in our research but what is its ultimate impact on data quality? This is the concern of a skilled researcher.

Cook, K., & Nunkoosing, K. (2008). Maintaining dignity and managing stigma in the interview encounter: The challenge of paid-for participation. Qualitative Health Research, 18(3), 418–427. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732307311343