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Effectiveness and ethics of incentives for research participation: 2 randomized clinical trials

JAMA Internal Medicine September 20, 2021

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Research Areas

PAIR Center Research Team

Headshot of Scott Halpern

Scott Halpern


Kevin G. Volpp

Headshot of Elizabeth Cooney Zingman

Elizabeth Cooney-Zingman


Alisa Stephens-Shields


Ryan Greysen

Sc B, MS

Brian Bayes


IMPORTANCE: Incentivizing research participation is controversial and variably regulated because of uncertainty regarding whether financial incentives serve as undue inducements by diminishing peoples’ sensitivity to research risks or unjust inducements by preferentially increasing enrollment among underserved individuals.

OBJECTIVE: To determine whether incentives improve enrollment in real randomized clinical trials (RCTs) or serve as undue or unjust inducements.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: Two RCTs of incentives that were embedded in 2 parent RCTs, 1 comparing smoking cessation interventions (conducted at smoking cessation clinics in 2 health systems) and 1 evaluating an ambulation intervention (conducted across wards of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania) included all persons eligible for the parent trials who did not have prior knowledge of the incentives trials. Recruitment occurred from September 2017 to August 2019 for the smoking trial and January 2018 through May 2019 for the ambulation trial; data were analyzed from January 2020 to July 2020.

INTERVENTIONS: Patients were randomly assigned to incentives of $0, $200, or $500 for participating in the smoking cessation trial and $0, $100, or $300 for the ambulation trial.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: The primary outcome of each incentive trial was the proportion of people assigned to each recruitment strategy that consented to participate. Each trial was powered to test the hypotheses that incentives served neither as undue inducements (based on the interaction between incentive size and perceived research risk, as measured using a 10-point scale, on the primary outcome), nor unjust inducements (based on the interaction between incentive size and participants’ self-reported income). Noninferiority methods were used to test whether the data were compatible with these 2 effects of incentives and superiority methods to compare the primary and other secondary outcomes.

RESULTS: There were a total of 654 participants (327 women [50.0%]; mean [SD] age, 50.6 [12.1] years; 394 Black/African American [60.2%], 214 White [32.7%], and 24 multiracial individuals [3.7%]) in the smoking trial, and 642 participants (364 women [56.7%]; mean [SD] age, 46.7 [15.6] years; 224 Black/African American [34.9%], 335 White [52.2%], and 5 multiracial individuals [0.8%]) in the ambulation trial. Incentives significantly increased consent rates among those in the smoking trial in 47 of 216 (21.8%), 78 of 217 (35.9%), and 104 of 221 (47.1%) in the $0, $200, and $500 groups, respectively (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] for each increase in incentive, 1.70; 95% CI, 1.34-2.17; P < .001). Incentives did not increase consent among those in the ambulation trial: 98 of 216 (45.4%), 102 of 212 (48.1%), and 92 of 214 (43.0%) in the $0, $100, and $300 groups, respectively (aOR, 0.88; 95% CI, 0.64-1.22; P = .45). In neither trial was there evidence of undue or unjust inducement (upper confidence limits of ORs for undue inducement, 1.15 and 0.99; P < .001 showing noninferiority; upper confidence limits of ORs for unjust inducement, 1.21 and 1.26; P = .01 and P < .001, respectively). There were no significant effects of incentive size on the secondary outcomes in either trial, including time spent reviewing the risk sections of consent forms, perceived research risks, trial understanding, perceived coercion, or therapeutic misconceptions.

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: In these 2 randomized clinical trials, financial incentives increased trial enrollment in 1 of 2 trials and did not produce undue or unjust inducement or other unintended consequences in either trial.


National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
National Cancer Institute (NCA)