Guidance on payments of research participants (volunteers)


This guidance should be read in conjunction with the University of Sheffield’s Ethics Policy Governing Research Involving Human Participants, Personal Data and Human Tissue.

The following guidance outlines the potential risks to the University by making a payment (including a payment in vouchers) to a research participant. It is recommended that during the ethics application process, applicants evidence how they will mitigate risk in relation to the payment of research participants.

A research participant may be offered a reasonable payment to compensate them for their time, travel expenses and to cover any other costs, which they may have incurred exclusively in the course of their involvement of research related activities.

Any payments made beyond these restrictions, will be subject to one or both of the following risks;


Careful consideration is required to determine whether the research participant’s willingness to volunteer may be influenced by the expectation of benefits or rewards. In particular, consideration should be given to whether participants may be induced to take risks beyond those that are normally part of their established life-style.

Therefore, to avoid any possible interpretation as coercion by inducement, payments of compensation should be reasonable and any incurred costs should ideally be paid upon the presentation of receipts. Estimated costs should be avoided where possible.

Creating an employment relationship

The relationship between the University of Sheffield and a research participant (volunteer) needs to be carefully managed to ensure that an employment relationship (worker or employee) is not created.

“Volunteers” are:

  • expected to provide their time and effort completely freely;
  • expected to be able to come and go as they please;
  • under no obligation to provide their services;
  • not subject to any sanctions if they do not perform their duties;
  • not entitled to and do not expect any monetary payments (including a payment in vouchers) or benefits in kind for their duties.

A “volunteer” would not be entitled to be paid National Minimum Wage (NMW), however, a “worker” or “employee” (employment relationships) would be.

Therefore, to prevent any employment relationship forming, avoid any kind of financial remunerations (including a payment in vouchers) for tasks performed by research participant, which goes beyond those outlined above (see 1. Overview) and could be construed as payment for work.

The following guidance is provided to further mitigate the risk of a employment relationship (employee or worker) forming between the University of Sheffield an a research participant:

  1. Ensure that any participation agreement states that the agreement is NOT a legally binding contract. This agreement should set out the hopes and goals of the relationship and should avoid contractual language such as “rights” and “obligations”;
  2. Avoid specifying a length of the participation arrangement;
  3. Enabling participants to choose their hours;
  4. Ensure participants understand that they can freely refuse to undertake tasks or withdraw from the research. Participants should be compensated for their participation, even if they withdraw during the research.