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Researchers Recruiting from Their Own Courses

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Researchers Recruiting from Their Own Courses

One particular circumstance that raises special ethical concerns involves researchers recruiting students from courses that they are teaching. The primary issue with gathering data from one's own course is the potential for perceived coercion.

Potential for Coercion

Instructors have inherent power over students (e.g., through their responsibility for assigning grades). Because of this power relationship, it is likely that some students will feel pressure to comply with requests made by their instructors. This is true independent of whether the instructors actually try to pressure the students. For example, when instructors ask students to participate in research projects, some students may worry that not participating could influence the instructors' opinions of them or that their grade might be affected. Such potential concerns are problematic regardless of whether the instructor actually would think negatively of nonparticipation or whether the students' grades actually would be affected. Students' perceptions that such negative consequences could happen are enough to make them feel pressured to participate.   

Thus, unless the research cannot be reasonably completed in another manner, instructors should not recruit participants from their own courses.

Exceptions

There are cases in which the research cannot be feasibly completed without recruiting students from a particular course.  For example, if the research project concerns a teaching method that will be implemented in the course, then the only possible subject pool comes from the students enrolled in that course. If a research project has a reasonable chance of yielding benefits, and the only feasible way to complete the study is to recruit in the researcher's course, the research may be permissible if the researcher is able to sufficiently reduce the potential for students to feel pressured to participate.

Reducing the Potential for Students to Experience Coercion

In the rare instances in which recruiting from one's own class is permissible, researchers are expected to minimize the potential for students to feel pressured to participate.

There are various strategies for minimizing the potential pressure to participate. One way that researchers have reduced the potential for perceived coercion is to design the study so that the instructor is blind to the identity of the participants (at least until after the grades have been assigned). For example, a research collaborator can run the study and keep any identifying information from the instructor.  If a researcher designs a study in this way, two points are crucial:

BEFORE being asked to participate, potential subjects should be informed that the instructor will not know who did and who did not participate (at least until after final grades have been assigned).
The research should be designed so that the instructor cannot infer who participated through indirect means (e.g., by seeing who walks into a laboratory, by getting a list of who earned credit for participating in the study).

In short, due to the potential for undue influence, researchers generally should avoid recruiting subjects from their own classes. When recruiting from their own class is the only feasible way to do a study, researchers are expected to design the research in such a way that the potential for students to feel pressured is minimized.