The investigator respects the individual's freedom to decline to participate in or to withdraw from the research at any time. The obligation to protect this freedom requires careful thought and consideration when the investigator is in a position of authority or influence over the participant. Such positions of authority include, but are not limited to, situations in which research participation is required as part of employment or in which the participant is a student, client, or employee of the investigator. (APA, 1982, p. 6)
Presumably, an investigator would not be conducting a study unless he or she believed in its scientific merit and, in applied studies especially, its potential for improving the human condition. In recruiting participants and maintaining their participation, the investigator must be careful not to be overzealous and exert undue pressure, no matter how strongly he or she holds this belief. A person has the right to decline to participate or withdraw from the experiment; the investigator must make clear this right, and take steps to ensure the person is able to do so without the fear of retaliation, punishment, or embarrassment.
A person may feel compelled to participate in research because of a special relationship between he or she and the investigator, one in which the investigator holds a position of power. Examples of such relationships include student-teacher, client-therapist, and employee-employer. Similar relationships with power differentials could also occur in the military and in prisons. In these cases, the investigator should take special care to protect participants' freedom of choice. One possible solution is for the investigator to turn over the recruitment of participants and the running of the experiment to a third party.
What constitutes "coercion" on the part of the investigator? Is a therapist/researcher justified in refusing to treat a depressed person because that person refuses to be a participant in a study about depression? Is a psychologist justified in using money as an incentive for cash-poor prisoners to be participants in a memory experiment? Is a professor justified in making a 15-minute moral appeal to his class to become participants in research about altruism? The answers to these questions are far from simple. Certainly, there can be the perception of coercion. What needs to be considered in each case is "the degree of risk, the method of coercion, and the extent of coercion" (APA, 1982, p. 44).
College students enrolled in a first-year psychology classes comprise a frequently used population in psychology experiments (Kimmel, 1996). In fact, a research requirement is often part of the course. Special guidelines have been created to reduce the possibility that students feel forced to participate against their will.
Students are informed about the research requirement before they enroll in the course, typically by an announcement in an official listing of courses. In addition, during the first class meeting, the instructor provides a detailed description of the requirement, frequently in written form, covering the following points: the amount of participation required, the available alternatives to actual research participation; in a general way, the kinds of studies among which the student can choose; the right of the student to drop out of a given research project at any time without penalty; any penalties to be imposed for failure to complete a requirement or for non-appearance after agreeing to take part; the benefits to the student to be gained from participation; the obligation of the researcher to provide the student with an explanation of the research; the obligation of the researcher to treat the participant with respect and dignity; the procedures to be followed if the student is mistreated in any way; and an explanation of the scientific purposes of the research carried on in the departmental laboratories. (APA, 1982, p. 47)
Of particular note in the quote above is that students have available to them substitute options to research participation. In fact, the most recent APA Ethics Code mandates that the student "is given the choice of equitable alternative activities" (APA, 1992, p. 1608). Interestingly, though, only about 1% of students request the alternative (McBurney, 1998).
Sally's subject population consists of all classes of Grade 1 students at Glenwood Elementary School. It is well known among the teachers and parents that Sally is the wife of Peter, the principal at Glenwood. Peter is a popular figure there and everyone trusts his judgment. When presented with the informed consent form, some parents feel a little bit uneasy about the research. They reason, however, that if Peter gave his approval to conduct the study at his school, then surely no harm could come of it. A few parents worry that refusing to allow their child to participate could be viewed as a "slap in the face" to Peter and Sally, affecting their and their child's standing with the teachers at the school, who are all in full support of Peter's decision.
Sally's plans for her subject population to consist of all classes of Grade 1 students at Glenwood Elementary School. It is well known among the teachers and parents that Sally is the wife of Peter, the principal at Glenwood. Peter is a popular figure there and everyone trusts his judgment. During consultations about ethical matters in the beginning stages of her research, it is pointed out to Sally that some parents may feel a little bit uneasy about giving their consent, but may reason that if Peter gave his approval to conduct the research at his school, then surely no harm could come of it. Also, some parents may worry that refusing to allow their child to participate could be viewed as a "slap in the face" to Peter and Sally, affecting their and their child's standing with the teachers at the school, who may all be in full support of Peter's decision. Sally changes the source of her subject pool to another elementary school.
In the first item, Peter's relationship to the parents and teachers (i.e., trustworthy authority figure) works mostly in Sally's favor in recruiting participants. Note, though, that Peter's decision to allow the study to be conducted at his school could have been biased, intentionally or not, because the investigator is his wife. Furthermore, some teachers could come to treat non-participants in a negative way because of what they view as an insult to Peter and Sally. In fact, Peter may have no bias and the teachers may behave no differently toward non-participants and participants. Nevertheless, considering Peter's position and Sally's connection to him, it would not be unreasonable for at least some parents to have these perceptions. And, given these perceptions, they may be uncomfortable about allowing their child to participate, but feel pressured into saying yes to avoid being stigmatized. In the second item, Sally's pre-inquiry ethical consultations (see Principle A) alert her to these issues. Her solution is a simple one: use a different school from which to select participants, one where her relationships to the parents and trusted authority figures at the school are unlikely to result in parents feeling coerced to consent.