A homage to research participants

Many of our research projects begin with a plan, continue when we find money to make that plan come true, and really start off when all resources are in place. So there are quite some bottlenecks along the way of doing research, but one is often overlooked: finding enough research participants. I often wonder whether participants themselves realise how important they are to us and to our research project. What on earth motivates them to participate anyway? Do they gain enough satisfaction by just participating? Should we thank them more than we do now? Questions, questions, questions.


The things they do for science…

Just to be clear: nothing we ask from research participants is unfounded or unnecessary. But some things we ask them to do, oh my… For example, in nutrition research it isn’t uncommon to ask for blood, urine, and even stool samples. Less invasive but still labour intensive are filling out food diaries, extensive food frequency questionnaires, or 24-hour recalls of what you’ve eaten. Sometimes for a couples a weeks, but sometimes on regular moments for years. Of course we explain the goal and relevance of the research and its measurements. Most of the time it’s to expand our knowledge on the effect of nutrition on health or diseases. We as researchers find that important, probably because of our curiosity, but what moves participants to participate?


Giving back to society

Ever since my master’s thesis, I ask all my participants the question: why did you agree to participate in this study? I interviewed them regarding loneliness among older adults, so I was curious whether they were feeling lonely and just liked the idea of having someone over. Some indeed did, but mostly they told me that they wanted to help me finish my thesis. How sweet is that? Another reason I hear often: contributing to society. Science takes a long time until we can use its results in practice and even change policies, so chances are low that participants will notice a study’s impact any time soon. But they don’t do it for themselves anyway, so I guess that’s all right. But maybe we can give them a little more than we do now.


Giving back to participants

I read it in almost every scientific paper, but I’m just not able to get used to the word study subjects when we refer to our participants. It just sounds so distant. Of course, the whole tone of a scientific article is like that, so I suppose that it’s fitting to call them subjects, but still, it’s so cold and dehumanizing… I know the majority of the participants will never see the scientific papers where they’re being referred to as subjects, but still. It’s something that won’t change soon – we all know how sloooow academia is – but as a start, I use participants instead of subjects in all my writings.


Let participants reap some direct benefits

Another way of giving back is making their participation and the measurements as pleasant as possible. In my work with older adults, I always try to take out enough time to chitchat with them before and after a measurement. When I know that a measurement takes up to 15 minutes, I plan 30 for each participant. I realise that it’s not efficient and not possible in all situations, but when it is: just do it! What’s wrong with letting them reap at least some direct benefits of participating in research?


Thank you

To all research participants out there, no matter what the reasons are for your participation: thank you, thank you, thank you. Without you, no human research. Without you and your devotion, we would have never known so much about nutrition as we do now. And we keep on going, with your help!