Using Incentives

If you will be using incentives with Colorado College students as participants, read this section first: If your research participants are Colorado College students and you are providing them with any incentives that are of fixed, determinable, and recordable value, you will need to report this information to the Compliance Group in the Colorado College Office of Finance & Administration. As the above sentence indicates, there is no amount of cash or equivalent incentive too small for reporting purposes; even an incentive of $5.00 or less (cash, gift card, book, CC store merchandise) needs to be reported, as all incentives are potentially taxable. Colorado College is liable for any taxable income that is not reported; therefore, this is a legal requirement for you as a researcher, whether you are a student, faculty member, or staff member.

The simplest way for you to take care of this obligation is to keep a spreadsheet of all research participants receiving an incentive. Please separate US citizens and international students by recording them on separate worksheets, as the laws work differently in the two cases. On each spreadsheet, please include the research participant's student ID number, the research participant's full legal name, and the total amount of money or cash-equivalent incentive that they received. Once your research has concluded, you must email this spreadsheet to the Compliance Group at

Because you must report the student ID numbers and names of all participants receiving incentives, research involving incentives cannot be carried out anonymously. You should still be careful to keep identifying information confidential, but you may not promise anonymity to participants. Some other kinds of research may allow for full anonymity; please read on for more information.

If you will be using incentives with participants other than Colorado students, read this section first:

  • Payment to CC employees for participation in research may be treated as taxable compensation. Please contact to plan the procedure for disbursement.
  • Payment to individuals who are not CC employees or students may also involve tax reporting obligations.
  • Please contact to plan the procedure for disbursement.
  • When it is crucial to keep participant identities confidential (except for the researcher knowing those identities), researchers should separate all participant data from any documents in which participants acknowledge receipt of a cash payment. The receipt acknowledgement will include identifying information for appropriate compliance and tax reporting, while the participant data will not include any identifying information and will therefore be functionally anonymous. (In very rare circumstances, it may be possible to prearrange small payment amounts using an anonymous acknowledgement form; contact
  • to discuss this possibility.)
  • Participant payment via a third-party vendor such as mTurk (amazon) and Prolific do not require identifying information from participants for College records. These should be paid for as services to a vendor (for example, with an invoice).

Here is a payment receipt form template you can use.

An introduction to research incentives/compensation
: Any payment or non-monetary reward provided by a researcher to research participants to compensate for their time, effort, and inconvenience in participating would be included in the considerations on this page, as would any payment or non-monetary reward provided as an incentive to get participants to participate. Compensation/incentives include cash, gift cards, vouchers, food, promotional items, course credit, and other benefits. Such benefits can be made available to all participants or can be available only to one or a few through a drawing. Reimbursement of travel costs is not an incentive; if it is the only compensation it must be clearly described as such.

Compensation/incentives are not inherently unethical and are not necessarily illegal, but can be problematic if they have an undue amount of influence on someone's decision to participate in your research. This is especially a problem with people who are financially destitute if a sizeable amount of money is offered, and with people who are hungry if food is offered. The law requires that researchers seek consent only under conditions that minimize the possibility of undue influence or actual coercion. When compensating vulnerable individuals, the compensation should be appropriate for the amount of time, effort, and inconvenience involved, but should not be high enough to induce participants to accept risks of harms that they would not otherwise accept (or to participate in activities that they would otherwise find offensive or immoral). Overly high compensation/incentives for people in vulnerable situations are also problematic for the research itself, as they may lead potential participants to lie about their research eligibility or to conceal information about themselves that would make them ineligible.

Incentives and compensation payments should not be referred to as "benefits" in consent forms, and should not be related to the magnitude of any potential risk of harm; they should be in proportion to the amount of time, effort, and inconvenience on the part of participants.

Here are some additional ethical/legal points about incentives and compensation:

  • The recruitment materials should not draw special attention to the fact that there will be compensation or incentives but should mention this fact, and should include incentive/compensation procedures as well as amounts
  • The consent process/form should include all relevant details about compensation/incentives, including any pro-rating of rewards if the participant withdraws partway through the research; for drawings, the consent process/form should also include information about the date and location of the drawing, the odds of winning, and how winners will be notified
  • The compensation or incentive must never require participants to spend their own money (so a discount coupon that would require the participant to spend their own money while receiving a partial discount is not acceptable)
  • Use the term "drawing" rather than "raffle" or "lottery" to make it clear that there is no fee to participate in the drawing and that all eligible participants will be entered unless they choose not to be
  • Contact IRB Chair Amanda Udis-Kessler if you are a faculty member and wish to use course credit or extra credit as an incentive, as this practice comes with certain additional challenges
Report an issue - Last updated: 04/23/2024