By Susan Cox and Michael McDonald
Social Science & Medicine
Volume 98, December 2013, Pages 224–231
Despite the significant literature as well as energy devoted to ethical review of research involving human subjects, little attention has been given to understanding the experiences of those who volunteer as human subjects. Why and how do they decide to participate in research? Is research participation viewed as a form of social responsibility or as a way of obtaining individual benefits? What if anything do research subjects feel they are owed for participation? And what do they feel that they owe the researcher? Drawing on in-depth individual interviews conducted in 2006 and 2007 with 41 subjects who participated in a variety of types of health research in Canada, this paper focuses on subject perspectives on responsibility in research. Highlighting the range of ways that subjects describe their involvement in research and commitments to being a ‘good’ subject, we present a typology of narratives that sheds new light on the diverse meanings of research participation. These narratives are not mutually exclusive or prescriptive but are presented as ideal types typifying a set of circumstances and values. As such, they collectively illuminate a range of motivations expressed by human subjects as well as potential sources of vulnerability. The typology adds a new dimension to the literature in this area and has significant implications for researchers seeking more human-subject centred approaches to research recruitment and retention, as well as research ethics boards trying to better anticipate the perspectives of prospective participants.
• Participant responsibility is a neglected aspect of research ethics.
• Responsibility can be conceptualized according to degree of agency and altruism.
• Participants' narrative accounts yield four main orientations to responsibility.
• These reveal differing motivations and sources of vulnerability.
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