Social Justice and Ethical Considerations for Research Compensation
Clinical Impact Statement: This article encourages psychological researchers to consider how research compensation can contribute to systemic benefits or harms.
“Despite the quest for knowledge, social scientists can get stuck in a paradoxical mind set of ‘this is how things have always been done.’” (Paquin et al., 2019).
What initially drew the authors to the University of Utah was a shared interest in and passion for bringing social justice values to the many subdisciplines of research within Counseling Psychology. In keeping with those values, we hope to design research that directly impacts and improves the lives of marginalized individuals and communities, and we imagine the same is true for many other students, professionals, and members of Division 29. As we conceptualize our roles, we are influenced by the arguments and proposed framework developed by Paquin, Tao, and Budge (2019). The authors detail how researchers can evaluate and implement social justice work in psychotherapy research. As we have approached new and exciting lines of inquiry, and have sought to implement them, we have noticed problematic trends with regard to how we have been advised to conceptualize incentives and compensation for participation. In this article, we invite you may be an agent for change not only in the questions you ask, but in how you structure the studies you conduct.
From our observation, it seems that compensation is almost synonymous with the distribution of Amazon gift cards. While our observations are anecdotal, we feel confident that, in many people’s inboxes, there will be emails with a similar line, “X out of Y participants will be eligible to win a $Z Amazon gift card,” or, “Participants who complete the survey will receive a $Z Amazon gift card.” Where did this increasingly common trend begin? Why is our field beholden to providing such a singular form of compensation to our participants? In discussions of ethics, there appears to be a significant concern for the amount we compensate participants (e.g., APA Code of Ethics, 2017; Festinger et al., 2009) but little to no attention to how we compensate our participants. Compensation is how we incentivize participation. Researchers need a form of compensation that is reliable, easy to distribute, and, most of all, persuasive and beneficial to participant populations. Amazon and other large multinational corporations offer many of these benefits for researchers that are strapped for time and labor. At the same time, researchers may want to consider how their research funds, from grants, fellowships, scholarships, or other sources, are contributing to injustice for workers and the environment.
“Do no harm,” or nonmaleficence, is a guiding ethical principle defined by American Psychological Association (2017). As noted by Paquin et al. (2019), nonmaleficence can be interpreted to mean, “we do not continue to develop, design, implement, or ask participants to engage in research that contributes to systemic oppression,” (p. 493). Over the past few decades, there have been collective concerns regarding the growth of large multinational corporations and their contributions to human and environmental exploitation. Despite the increased productivity of workers and colossal revenues, median blue-collar wages have stagnated at these corporations (Alimahomed-Wilson & Reese, 2021; Mishel et al., 2013). Furthermore, an in-depth interview with current and former Amazon warehouse workers in Inland Southern California indicated recurrent instances of racial and gender-based discrimination (Reese, 2020). A detailed report of workers demographic released by Amazon in 2021 revealed that while workers of color (predominantly Black and Latinx) made up 68% of the blue-collar workforce, Black (1.5%), Latinx (2.7%), and female (20.8%) employees were underrepresented in senior-level and executive positions (Kantor et al., 2021; Long, 2021). Alimahomed-Wilson & Reese (2021) argue that Amazon’s growing power and dominance in the workforce is partly due to the large-scale exploitation of vast blue-collar labor that is often racialized and/or marginalized.
With the exponential growth of e-commerce and the expansion of warehouses during the COVID-19 pandemic in response to surging consumer demands, issues of health and safety in Amazon and its contemporaries have been further brought to the surface. Amazon warehouse workers are electronically surveilled and monitored through an algorithmic management system, which pressures workers to work quickly, resulting in high rates of burnout, injury, and turnover (Alimahomed-Wilson & Reese, 2021). According to a Washington Post Analysis of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports, Amazon warehouse workers experience some of the highest rates of injury, reporting 5.9 serious injuries per 100 workers in comparison to their competitor Walmart, which reported 2.5 cases per 100 workers (Greene & Alcantara, 2021).
In addition to low wages and challenging working environments, researchers might consider the inextricable link between social and environmental injustice. Rising activism and unionization attempts by Amazon workers to address the disproportionate environmental harm within the Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and immigrant communities have been emblematic of long-standing issues regarding workforce and environmental racism (Glaser & Miranda, 2021). Nearly 70% of Amazon warehouses are located in lower-income and racially diverse communities (Calma, 2021). Air pollution as a result of warehouse activities leads to severe health problems and dislocation, exacerbating the adversities experienced by marginalized communities. Because we aspire to help vulnerable and marginalized communities with our research, we must also recognize the potential harm we enact with our research design. While individual research funding may not represent a significant amount, it is concerning that many, if not the majority of online psychological research, utilize this compensation system that contributes to ongoing exploitation and injustice. Psychological researchers are obligated to consider the ethical consequences of any research design.
A potential critique of this perspective may be that we, as researchers, are acting in paternalistic ways over our participants. After all, participants have the right to access forms of compensation that they ultimately want or find useful (Gordon et al., 2011). Therefore, we encourage and recommend that researchers consider offering participants a menu of compensation options. While not exhaustive, compensation such as cash, honorariums, gift cards to local businesses, digital reward services (e.g., Tango Card), donations to community organizations, course credit, food, and service exchange (e.g., providing psychoeducational workshop) are possible approaches to allow participants to choose a method of compensation that aligns with their personal needs, desires, and values. Compensating in a singular form, such as with Amazon gift cards, may disincentivize groups of participants who find little use in these services or wish not give business to these ethically compromised organizations.
We do acknowledge that, at times, we cave to the convenience and affordability associated with making purchases through big businesses. Again, there is no doubt that the services provided by Amazon and other multinational corporations add ease to our personal and researcher lives. Nonetheless, we ask researchers to at least consider how their method of compensation, as with any part of their research design, aligns with the values they espouse. If we really endeavor to advocate and create change through our research, we also must be more intentional in how we direct our funds and in which companies we support. While we do not imagine that researchers will discontinue utilizing accessible means of compensation, we hope this article encourages intentional conversations about our research practices. How do we integrate social justice at each step of our research design? How can we be sure that our work supports and centers the voices of marginalized populations? We’re eager to engage with you and to learn what you suggest. Let us know what you think!
Cite This Article
Ng, W., Anjom, A., & Drinane, J. M. (2022). Beyond Amazon: Social justice and ethical considerations for research compensation. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 57(2), 17-20.
Alimahomed-Wilson, J., & Reese, E. (2021). Surveilling Amazon’s warehouse workers: racism, retaliation, and worker resistance amid the pandemic. Work in the Global Economy, 1(1-2), 55-73. https://doi.org/10.1332/273241721X16295348549014
American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, amended effective June 1, 2010, and January 1, 2017). https://www.apa.org/ethics/code/
Festinger, D. S., Marlowe, D. B., Croft, J. R., Dugosh, K. L., Arabia, P. L., & Benasutti, K. M. (2009). Monetary incentives improve recall of research consent information: It pays to remember. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 17(2), 99-104. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015421
Calma, J. (2021, December 9). Go read this investigation on the environmental racism of Amazon warehouses. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/9/22826615/investigation-environmental-racism-amazon-warehouses
Glaser, A., & Miranda, L. (2021, May 24). Amazon workers demand end to pollution’s hitting people of color hardest. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/amazon-shareholders-demand-end-pollution-hitting-people-color-hardest-n1268413
Gordon, B.G., Brown, J., Kratochvil, C., Prentice, E.D., & Amdur, R. (2011). Paying research subjects. In R.J. Amdur & E.A. Bankert (Eds.), Institutional review board: Member handbook (pp. 115-120). Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Kantor, J., Weise, K. and Ashford, G. (2021, June 15) The Amazon that customers don’t see. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/06/15/us/amazon-workers.html.
Long, K. (2021, April 14). New Amazon data shows Black, Latino and female employees are underrepresented in best-paid jobs. The Seattle Times. https://www.seattletimes.com/business/ amazon/new-amazon-data-shows-black-latino-and-female-employees-are-underrepresented-in-best-paid-jobs/
Mishel, L., Bivens, J., Gould, E., & Shierholz, H. (2013). The state of working America. Cornell University Press.
Paquin, J. D., Tao, K. W., & Budge, S. L. (2019). Toward a psychotherapy science for all: Conducting ethical and socially just research. Psychotherapy, 56(4), 491. https://doi.org/10.1037/pst0000271
Reese, E. (2020). Gender, race, and Amazon warehouse labor in the United States. In E. Reese & J. Alimahomed-Wilson (Eds.), The cost of free shipping (pp. 102–115). Pluto Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv16zjhcj.13