Incentives are payments made to user research participants, either for expenses or to recognise the time, skill and expertise they contribute to a project.

Incentives are payments made to participants involved with research. They fall into 2 main categories:

  1. Expenses
  2. Payments recognising the time, skill and expertise that the participant contributes to a project

Expenses are more straightforward, but all payments to participants can be complex.

Enabling participation

You should avoid excluding some groups by making sure that participants aren’t out of pocket by taking part in your research. Different people may need financial help in different ways to allow them to participate.

For example:

  • carers — may be unable to participate without funding for alternative care
  • parents —​ the cost of childcare may make it hard to participate
  • people living in rural areas —​ their location may mean high transport costs
  • people living with a disability —​ having transport and carer support might cost a lot
  • people who are employed —​ taking time off normal work may mean losing income

Before you agree participation, you should give participants clear guidance on what is covered and any limits.

Refusing incentives

Participants can choose how much of the available incentive they’re paid, if any. Some may choose not to be paid, or be paid a lower amount for various reasons:

  • kindness
  • to avoid losing social security payments
  • to avoid complexity with their employment

Participants are the best, and only, judge of how they feel about this and must be allowed to decide for themselves. But, these are not reasons to avoid offering payment in the first place.

Participant equality

Where participation is more involved, it is unfair to expect unpaid participants to sit alongside professional, paid members in the team.

If you pay citizen team members for their time and expertise:

  • this power imbalance is reduced
  • participant confidence is increased
  • participant roles are clarified

This will lead to higher quality data.

Challenges in making payments

Paying people may be complex, but this should not stop you making payments where appropriate.

Internal procedures should not be barriers to giving incentives. Excluding people from research by not providing incentives is likely to skew the participant pool to those who have time and money to attend sessions.

Paying expenses and incentives

All out-of-pocket expenses should be covered. Participants should not end up worse off financially from participating in research.

Expenses should be paid upfront by the organisation if possible. This means the citizen is not out of pocket. This is important for participants on low incomes who may not be able to cover these costs.

If you pay expenses upfront, it also removes potential complications with tax or employment law, because expenses covered this way do not count as income.

For people who are receiving social security, paying expenses directly is often essential to avoid the risk of reimbursed expenses being treated as income.

When it’s not possible to pay expenses upfront, you should reimburse participants promptly. This may need to be in cash, as some citizens may not have bank accounts.

How much to pay

Paying for time and input depends on a number of factors. Each situation is different, but consider:

  • how the principle of equity applies to your research project and team
  • the time commitments involved in the role —​ remember preparation, travel time, reading, meetings and communication
  • the comparative levels of pay and responsibility for participating professionals
  • the level of responsibility you’re expecting citizens to have
  • the current national minimum wage

Make sure you let participants know what costs may need to be declared to the government.

Participants receiving social security

Research participants may be receiving social security payments. Payments from research can affect the amount a they’ll receive from the government. You must consider that:

  • participants receiving social security must follow the rules about what they can do, and what they can be paid
  • if they breach the terms, even if helping in research, their government income could be stopped pending an inquiry or it could lead to them losing the social security income permanently
  • paying participants with alternatives like as gift vouchers does not avoid this issue —​ the same conditions apply

The fear of losing social security benefits can be a major factor in people not becoming involved in research. This could result in a project losing hard-to-reach participants who could make a valuable contribution.

Many people can be unaware of the conditions of their social security payments. It’s good practice to support potential participants to get the right advice. For example, from Jobcentres or Citizen Advice Scotland.

You should avoid giving advice on this topic, as there is a risk in providing the wrong information if the law changes. Find out what welfare rights advice services are available locally to your potential participants.

One-off payments as a gift

If there’s one-off involvement in a research project, the payment is considered a thank you gift. It should be a reasonable amount, and the participant should not have had any prior involvement in your research in the same financial year (April to March).

Tax and National Insurance

Reimbursement is not taxed because it is not counted as income. But it may need to be declared if the participant is receiving social security, or is self-employed.

Payments for time and input are usually taxed and subject to National Insurance. You should let citizens know that it’s their responsibility to declare this.

Find more information on the INVOVE website.