New APA Committee on Human Research Offers Perspective on OHRP Opinion Concerning University Research Participant Pools

The new APA Committee on Human Research (CHR) held its first meeting on March 26-27, 2010, in Washington, DC.  The committee members are Thomas Eissenberg (chair), Miriam F. Kelty, Daniel C. Marson, Vivian Ota Wang, Barbara Stanley, and Mieke Verfaellie. Sangeeta Panicker serves as the staff liaison to the committee.


This commentary is the first in a regular series for PSA in which CHR addresses current ethical and regulatory issues surrounding human subject research. These commentaries are not official APA policy but represent the consensus view of the committee members and are intended to inform and stimulate thinking among researchers and administrators.


More coverage of the CHR meeting will appear in the May issue of PSA.



Participant pools are a common research activity of many university departments of psychology.  They provide investigators the opportunity to collect data, and students the opportunity to learn about research from the participants’ perspective.  Course credit is often provided for the learning element.  Participant pools are supported by local Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), because the learning occurs in the context of policies and procedures that afford fundamental research protections such as voluntary participation and informed consent.  To maintain these research protections and the learning element, institutions, OHRP, and the APA Ethical Principles for Psychologists and Code of Conduct (Standard 8.04) require that pools provide students with an option to earn the same course credit by completing equitable alternative, educational activities that do not require research participation.

For some pool research, participants must be in a specific location at a particular time and investigator and participant therefore must schedule a research appointment.  Some university research participant pools have deducted course credits from students who do not keep these appointments.  This course credit policy was intended to use time efficiently, preserve resources, and help students learn responsibility and respect for the research enterprise.

Recently, OHRP has reaffirmed its support of participant pools but has also indicated that pools may not withhold credit based on a participant’s missed appointment (see February 2010 PSA). OHRP notes that individuals who agree to participate in research are free to choose not to participate at any time without penalty (see federal regulation 45 CFR 46.116(a)(8)). For OHRP, failure to keep a research appointment constitutes an individual’s choice not to participate, and therefore cannot be penalized.  Accordingly, OHRP has indicated that missed appointments may make the student ineligible for earning course credit via research participation, but the student must still be able to earn the course credit by completing an equitable educational activity that does not require research participation. 

CHR recognizes the value of using time efficiently, preserving resources, and teaching responsibility and respect for the research enterprise.  CHR noted that, as soon as a research participant pool is established in a psychology department, psychologists have made a commitment to protect the rights of the students who have now become potential research participants.  In particular, CHR observed that APA’s Ethical Principles for Psychologists Code states that “When psychologists conduct research with clients/patients, students, or subordinates as participants, psychologists take steps to protect the prospective participants from adverse consequences of declining or withdrawing from participation” (8.04).   There may be more efficient and respectful methods of withdrawing from research than failing to attend a scheduled appointment, but participants must always be able to choose to withdraw from research without penalty.

CHR invites responses to this piece, as well as suggestions for topics for future commentaries.  You may send your ideas to Dr. Sangy Panicker.