By John Timony
Fliers recruiting participants for research studies conducted by the Graduate School of Business (GSB) Behavioral Lab, the psychology department, the Laboratory for Social Research and more can be found all around campus. Students participate in this research for a variety of reasons, but monetary reasons dominate the academic ones, raising concerns amongst researchers about maintaining representative and diverse samples.
It’s well known that many students use the money they receive from participating in studies to cover extra expenses.
“In general it’s been great,” said Alessandra Marcone ’20, a student who has taken studies up to once a week. “[The studies put] cash in my pockets that I use to buy food when I’m hungry.”
According to Crystal Redekopp, Associate Director of the Laboratory for Social Research, the amount students are paid varies by department. Most pay above minimum wage and offer flexible, choose-your-own hours.
“Average rate on campus is $20 an hour, but some departments pay more, some pay less,” Redekopp said.
Indeed, funding disparities for paid research studies exist across the departments. In some departments, professors and graduate students must apply for grant money to fund their research, while in others, money flows from the top — from the department and the dean.
“At a lot of schools, they’d have to be applying for grants,” said Olivia Foster-Gimbel, a social science research coordinator at the GSB’s Behavioral Lab. “Here, our professors don’t really have to worry about grants. At Stanford specifically, it comes from the school of business and the dean.”
Redekopp, meanwhile, said that funding for her lab’s research comes “from all over the place” rather than a central source like the dean and the department in the business school.
“Sometimes faculty have research funds, sometimes they have grants,” Redekopp explained.
The resulting pay differential for participants, however, has influenced students’ choice of studies.
“The GSB ones pay really well, and they post new ones more often, which is why I do those the most,” said Sophia Helfand ’20, a frequent study participant.
Helfand added that the psychology studies pay less, so “it feels less worth it” to participate.
For some, the role of monetary incentives raises the question of whether paying participants affects the reliability of the data.
“We did once have a participant who complained, saying none of her sorority sisters would do the GSB surveys [and] that she was the only one who would,” Foster-Gimbel said. “They would say, ‘Oh why would I take that study for 15 dollars; I don’t need that.’”
Foster-Gimbel said that given the problems associated with paying participants, she thinks the ideal type of study would use random participation.
“Yet surprisingly, a lot of people just enjoy taking studies,” said Foster-Gimbel.
Nicole Abi-Esber, another social science research coordinator at the GSB Behavioral Lab, said that nonrepresentative sample pools are “a problem in general just by nature of being at Stanford [because] the population we’re attracting is very specific.”
The recently-admitted class of 2022, for instance, had only a 4.3 percent acceptance rate — and that’s just out of the population that self-selected to apply to Stanford in the first place.
However, given the constraints on their time and resources, many researchers conduct their studies primarily on college undergraduate students anyways.
“Decades and decades of psychological research has been done on undergraduate student samples and even what they called WEIRD samples: white, educated, industrialized, rich developed countries,” Foster-Gimbel said.
The issue with this is that WEIRD subjects represent a small percentage of the world’s population, and can differ from other groups in several respects from their preferences to their moral judgement, which potentially skews resulting data.
In contrast, according to Abi-Esber, some Stanford studies will allow anyone with a SUNet ID to participate, allowing researchers to draw from a wider pool of potential participants.
Newer mechanisms for research are also opening up doors for more diverse populations. With online sampling platforms, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk — which pays people small amounts for brief research participation — the GSB lab hopes to attract more diverse survey populations.
Aastha Chadha, a social science research coordinator at the GSB Behavioral Lab, suggested that the internet offers a promising ability to create a more diverse and representative body of research on Stanford’s campus.
“I think with the way things are progressing, with the way we can post online surveys now, it makes it much easier to get diverse samples,” Chadha said. “20 years ago, the only people in the study would be white, young college students and now you can get much more representative sampling.”
Contact John Timony at jtimony ‘at’ stanford.edu.