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Advice Interview LibParlor Contributor

Navigating Research Incentives as Academic Librarians

Advice from academic librarians on institutional funding & support for research incentives.

Are you intimidated by the perceived struggles of getting approval from the IRB for research incentives? Do you want to offer participants incentives to participate in research but are not sure about funding? Would you like to provide compensation to those assisting in your research endeavors but don’t know where to start? Are you unclear about what type of institutional support might exist for you? 

These questions led four academic librarians and IRDL 2022 scholars to provide greater transparency on research incentives for a webinar, “Navigating Research Incentives: IRB, Institutional Support, and Funds.” (The webinar was not recorded in order to create a safe space for the Q&A portion of the presentation.) Ruth Monnier moderated the panel, as the perceived institutional red tape around research incentives had initially scared her away. However, with the goal of increasing transparency and raising awareness about research incentives, Amber Sewell, Nena Schvaneveldt, and Carolina Hernandez, three academic librarians from different institutions around the U.S., will share some of their experiences and expertise discussed in the webinar. Research incentives, also known as compensation, are a predetermined payment which might include gift cards, goods, or cash given to research participants in exchange for their time during a research study.

Question 1: Why are you interested in providing a research incentive to your participants? 

Nena Schvaneveldt (NS) – My population, students, are often used for labor and research with little or no compensation. Part of my research is to re-center student voices, and doing so without compensating them for their labor felt antithetical to the spirit of my research. 

Amber Sewell (AS) – The interest for me is two-fold. Similar to Nena, it was important from an ethical standpoint to offer incentives to students for their thoughts, labor, and time. I also hoped it would increase participation, as there are many demands on students’ time and attention, and I hoped to give them reason to prioritize taking 5-10 minutes to complete my survey.

Carolina Hernandez (CH) – Because I was going to be exclusively interviewing BIPOC librarians, who are often asked to take on the bulk of diversity-related labor without appropriate compensation, it was important to me to offer an incentive for participating. It felt like the bare minimum to show my appreciation for taking time to speak with me candidly on their job search experiences.

Question 2: Institutions vary greatly in their resources from people support to monetary support in the research process. How did you learn to provide compensation for your participants? What opportunities for research incentives, particularly funding, are available at your institution? How did you determine how much compensation to provide to your participants? Did you have to seek external funding and what did that process look like? 

AS – In all honesty, I initially assumed that research incentives weren’t a realistic option; at a previous institution, where I did a lot of work as a graduate teaching assistant, that felt beyond my reach, so it took some adjustment to realize I was in a tenure-track role at an institution with different resources available to me! I had heard of others (both at my previous and current institution) who have used their personal money to pay for incentives, but that is far from the ideal situation, especially when our research is often done to improve the work we do! I mentioned my survey to my supervisor, who told me that it was in fact possible to offer students research incentives. A chance to win $25 put on a student’s campus account felt like a good amount for answering a short survey that wouldn’t take more than ten minutes. Because my work centers students and will eventually be used to develop a digital learning object that we will use in instruction, I was able to use some funding through our outreach budget. I can’t say I have investigated other options for research incentives at my institution. 

NS – I learned about this by participating in research myself! My library doesn’t provide funding for incentives, although there are some discretionary funds I could request. I checked with colleagues on how much they thought would be fair. I learned about a $1000 research award that I could use, and so I tried to make my incentives align with that amount, so some basic math helped me out. I had a contingency plan to use some discretionary funds if I didn’t get the award. To get the funding, I had to provide a proposal with a budget and plan to disburse the funds. I already had a research proposal because of IRDL, so that was easy!

CH – While I had previously been an interviewee in a study that did not offer incentives, I had also been part of a research team that did offer incentives for interview participants. So while it might not always be standard, I knew it was possible to do so. Based on my previous experience, I decided to offer $25 gift cards to each interview participant, knowing that would be enticing enough, but also fair compensation since the interviews were expected to only take between 30 and 60 minutes. I was lucky enough to be selected for an internal fellowship at my institution that provided research funds I could use to cover the cost of incentives.

Question 3: Does your institution have any limitations on how you can provide or what types of incentives are available to your participants? 

NS – The IRB has to find it ethical and not coercive. Also if participants are employees, it’s part of taxable income. There has also been some general hesitancy around gift cards, due to histories of gift card fraud. I learned that it’s easier here to buy goodies from the bookstore to give out, but that wasn’t a good enough incentive for this particular study. 

CH – At my institution, the situation is basically the same as what Nena described regarding both the IRB and incentives as taxable income for employees. Thankfully, I did not receive any pushback or run into any limitations, but that may have been because of the relatively small size of my study.

AS – There are definitely institutional rules covered by IRB to ensure that incentives are ethical and not coercive, as Nena mentions. Our division of research states that “Incentives may include Visa gift cards, retail gift cards, and non-cash gifts (such as clothing, toys, or equipment),” but I know that the Libraries often choose to avoid gift cards. The number of steps involved and information required to be collected makes it a tedious process, from what I’ve heard. I used RebelCash, which is the account linked to student IDs that they can use all over campus to cover things like dining on campus, printing, and more. To do so, I had to reach out to the Human Subjects Compensation branch of the Office of Research Integrity, and from there had to complete an exemption request. While an extra step, it means there are very few steps involved overall to actually get the compensation to students.

Question 4: How has having an incentive impacted your research project – your timeline, amount of participants, IRB review, etc.? 

AS – It was one extra step to complete to receive the exemption before I could submit my IRB, but didn’t add much time to that process. There was no problem with the IRB review; I used previously approved language regarding compensation and that was fine. It’s hard to say how it impacted student responses to the survey; it was deployed during in-person one-shots and students were given time at the end of class to complete it, so they may have done so even without the chance to receive compensation. I am changing up the study a bit for fall 2023, where I’ll be doing interviews, and haven’t yet talked with my supervisor about how that may impact my timeline. Fingers crossed it’s as smooth as the first time around!

NS – IRB review was fine – I just had to log the organization with IRB and ensure the incentive wasn’t coercive. I think it helped me get participants, which was good because it was tricky – I was asking for an interview and two short diary entries, but that’s a lot for busy students. The biggest impact was probably on my timeline. I moved a group of interviews back a few months to wait for the research award to be finalized, but turns out that was actually good because the first few weeks of a semester are busy for students, so later was better. I also have to be pretty diligent about tracking when the incentives were purchased, when they were distributed, and so on. I also had to get the participants’ full names and ID numbers, and so I had to reassure them that their actual identities wouldn’t be stored anywhere near their pseudonyms or research data. That’s a little annoying. 

CH – Knowing that I wanted to offer an incentive meant waiting to submit IRB until I knew how I would fund the research. Thankfully, this didn’t take too much time. Once I had that squared away, I submitted my protocol and waited about a month before having my study labeled exempt, although I don’t think the incentives affected the amount of time I waited. Then I started the ball rolling on actually getting the gift cards in line so that they would be ready in time for the interviews. This is when I found out that I was actually the first in my library to offer virtual gift cards as an incentive, which meant figuring out the process from scratch with the help of our financial coordinator. It took a little longer than expected, but it was important to me to have a process in place that would be straightforward for participants and protect their privacy as much as possible.

Question 5: What advice would you give to someone looking to provide incentives as they navigate the IRB process and their institution?

AS – Talk to others at your institution who have gone through the process. Ask if they are willing to share language they used for their IRB application, or what they wish they’d known before submitting an IRB. Give yourself plenty of time; even though I used very similar language as a previously accepted IRB, rules had changed and I had to do some extra work to make sure we could use the same incentive. And when the IRB is done and accepted, I would encourage others to talk about it with their colleagues, especially if they are interested in research. Let them know you’re willing to share your experience, even if you’ve only done it once and have a different context than they might. Others may not even think to ask if there’s a way to incentivize research, and you mentioning it at a department meeting may be all the opportunity they need to start their own journey. 

NS – Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Believe in your research, and that it’s worth funding. I’ve received outside funding from two professional organizations, and there weren’t a ton of applicants for the funding. It doesn’t need to be big and prestigious, and I had to overcome the feeling that I had to be really involved with the group to “deserve” the money. Reframing it to acknowledge that while I may not be really involved, the research would benefit the funder helped me a lot. 

CH – I’ll second Nena and say it’s always worth asking for funds internally first, especially if research is an expected part of your job responsibilities. Also, don’t assume you need a ton of money! Depending on the size of your study and the methodology, you may not need as much funding as you think. And definitely make sure you familiarize yourself with how the incentives are distributed at your institution so that you can give accurate expectations to your participants.

Question 6: Any other thoughts on academic librarians and research incentives? Are there any resources or any last comments you’d like to make? 

AS – I’m glad we’re talking about it! Like I said, I initially just made the assumption that offering research incentives wasn’t available to me, and if my supervisor hadn’t brought it up, I probably would have proceeded without investigating further. As someone newer to the profession and doing research, asking for money felt awkward (which it shouldn’t, because people should be compensated for their labor and time!), so I think more discussions about what it’s like to do research and what resources are available to people is important. I can imagine that if I weren’t doing this research as part of IRDL, where others were also discussing their research process, the chances of me even thinking about research incentives would have been much lower.

NS – There really ought to be more money for us to do research. It’s important to compensate subjects for their work, but perhaps not at the cost of the researcher-librarian attending a conference or other professional development. 

CH – There is so much vocational awe and unpaid labor going on in our profession when it comes to research, so I really want to encourage others to consider offering incentives if it’s appropriate for their study. 


The authors would like to thank Marie R. Kennedy and Kris Brancolni for their assistance and encouragement throughout the IRDL process as well as their fellow 2022 IRDL Cohort Members for engagement and support in the research process.

Author Bios:

Amber Sewell, she/hers, is a Teaching and Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she works primarily with first and second year undergraduate students. Her research interests include games for instruction and outreach, information privilege, and podcasting as a means of making scholarship more widely available. 

Nena Schvaneveldt, she/hers, is an Associate Director of Clinical, Education, and Research and Associate Librarian at the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah. Her work focuses on curricular development and delivery of information literacy instruction to students in the health professions. Her research interests include information practices of health professions students, authentic information literacy instruction, and critical librarianship in health sciences.

Carolina Hernandez, she/hers, is a Student Success Librarian and Rooks Early Career Librarian Fellow at the University of Houston, where she works with co-curricular programs to integrate information literacy beyond the classroom. Her research interests currently include assessing hiring practices in academic librarianship for inequity in order to make the process more inclusive.

Ruth Monnier, she/hers, is a Learning Outreach Librarian at Pittsburg State University, Kansas, where she engages in campus and community partnerships, library programming, and instruction. Her research interests include library programming, community outreach, and open education.

Photo from openverse.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The expressions of the writers do not reflect anyone’s views but their own.

Nimisha is a subject librarian at University of Cincinnati, where she supports all research, reference, collection development, and digital scholarship for history, gender studies, and anthropology. In her spare time you can find her riding her bike, knitting, or reading. @mishiebhat on Twitter.

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