So you want to volunteer for a research study?

Steve Simon


Here’s a draft of a speech that I am planning to give on August 5, 2004 for the Bluejacket Toastmasters humorous speech competition.

So you want to volunteer for a research study? Good for you! Mister Contestmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and Guests.

I work as a statistician at Children’s Mercy Hospital. So when you volunteer for a research study, you provide the data that gives me job security.

Looking around this audience though, I see one or two people who wouldn’t qualify for research done at a Children’s Hospital. That’s okay, still go ahead and volunteer for the adult research studies.

There are three basic reasons why people volunteer for a research study.

  1. They are curious about the scientific process of research;
  2. They want access to new promising drugs that are not yet widely available because they are still being tested; or
  3. Previous research has given them a longer, healthier life, so they want to help out with new research to insure even better health for the next generation.

It’s not always easy to recruit subjects for a research study. A Swedish study published in 1997 illustrates this very well. These researchers were interested in measuring personality traits in a group of healthy volunteers. The way that you measure personality is to asked to agree or disagree with a bunch of statements that are sometimes a bit embarrassing and personal. So you might be asked:

The interesting part of this research is that they wanted to include a second phase of testing. In this second phase, the various personality profiles would be compared to chemicals found in cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebral spinal fluid. Does anyone in the audience know how you get cerebrospinal fluid?

The polite term is lumbar puncture, but most of you probably recognize it better as a spinal tap. This is a rather painful procedure. In this study, about half of the volunteers from the first phase agreed to the spinal tap and about half refused.

Let me ask all of you. Would you volunteer for a study like this. Let’s assume that the researchers will compensate you well for the discomfort and inconveniences involved. They’ll pay a thousand dollar. No, fifteen hundred dollars.

Raise your hand if you would not even think about volunteering, even for fifteen hundred bucks. Raise your hand if you might consider it.

Very interesting. I ask this question in the classes and seminars that I teach and I find that I get a higher volunteer rate around November or December. When you’re staring at all the Christmas shopping bills, that money starts to look awfully attractive.

Now for most research, we don’t know anything about the people who refused to join. They just never show up. But in this study, they had a complete personality profile on the joiners and the refusers. And it turns out the joiners were significantly different on one personality trait. Can you guess what it is?

[Poll for two or three responses.]

It turns out that the joiners scored significantly higher on an impulsivity scale. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The impulsive ones will say

Yeah, I’ll do it. [Pause] What did you want me to do again?

Other research studies have problems with volunteers. Research comparing different types of surgery, for example. When you volunteer for a research study, you are giving up control over the type of medical treatment that you will get and letting the research protocol decide for you among two or three different operations. Suppose the surgeon is comparing the old traditional surgical approach with a large incision. This approach leaves a big scar. The new approach they want to compare it to uses a scope inserted into a small incision and it leaves a small scar. Almost everyone say

I want the small scar. I want the small scar.

So it’s difficult to recruit volunteers, even though there are other considerations besides the size of the scar that need to be evaluated.

Research into birth control methods are also tricky. Most couples want to select the birth control methods themselves and don’t want to leave that choice to a research protocol. And boy do they get fussy when you tell them that one of the methods being compared is a placebo.

A placebo birth control pill. Imagine that! Who would volunteer for such a study? Well it would have to be a couple that would get upset too much if they had a baby and wouldn’t mind too much if they delayed getting a baby.

There aren’t that many people who are indifferent. hey either want to get pregnant really bad or they want to stay unpregnant really bad.

So please do consider volunteering for a research study. You might learn a bit about the scientific process and you will be helping future generations. But when they explain to you that the study involves collection of cerebrospinal fluid, you should hold out for two thousand dollars.

Further reading

  1. The healthy control subject in psychiatric research: impulsiveness and volunteer bias. Gustavsson JP, Asberg M, Schalling D. Acta Psychiatr Scand 1997: 96(5); 325-8. [Medline]
  2. Problems of Randomized Controlled Trails (RCT) in Surgery. Lefering R, Neugebauer E. Accessed on 2003-06-30.

You can find an earlier version of this page on my original website.