Condoms and ethics

This may be a bit of a stretch to highlight here, but honestly, I just wanted an excuse to blog about this. It’s a fascinating study and one that, even just briefly covered in a national newspaper, spawned an outpouring of visceral and knee-jerk reactions.

Here is the very brief story from Wednesday’s Globe and Mail: Condoms wanted; Experienced rubbers preferred

This story highlights a University of Windsor nursing research study in which, from what I can gather, participants will be asked to submit three months worth of their used condoms along with any that they might have been carrying around in their wallets or pockets (or anywhere else one might carry condoms). The researchers are essentially looking for microscopic holes in condoms (which are certainly a serious issue) caused by failures in use, storage and manipulation.

What’s most interesting about this study is the flurry of comments from the public on, primarily, three things: The methodology, the fact that this research is (they assume) funded and the compensation for dropping off one’s used condoms — fifty Canadian dollars.

Obviously, this study was approved by an ethics review board. And clearly, from only a cursory column in a newspaper, there is little one can realistically say about methodology or funding. There simply isn’t enough information to comment on those two issues. But the compensation issue is a good one — and one that comes up, time and time again, in ethics review board discussions.

In this case, a few lay commentators were appalled at the amount of compensation for three months worth of used and unused condoms. Fifty dollars seems fairly reasonable to me, given the fact that participants will have to, well, gather up their used condoms at probably fairly inconvenient moments and put them delicately aside to provide for researchers. The collection of condoms will occur over three months for a total of 20 collected condoms — 10 used and 10 unused. One commentator stated that the amount of compensation would likely lead to an inducement of struggling university and college students to participate. While I’m not sure that fifty dollars would induce (as opposed to simply compensate) someone for their participation over three months, collecting what one needs to collect here, it’s always worth asking a few important questions when looking at the amount of compensation offered in any research study:

1. What are participants being asked to do? How much time are they taking away from their own lives to participate in the study? What kind of burden are they assuming by being a participant?

2. Are basic costs of participating being covered? (Transportation or parking, child care if required, time away from work, time and effort)

2. Who are the participants? How much might their time be worth in another context? Would the amount offered be considerably more than they might get otherwise for a similar amount of time and effort?

3. How much is too much compensation?

4. When does compensation instead become inducement for participation in this study with these potential participants?

Offering first year University students, living on student loans, an iPod for one hour of their time to answer a survey would certainly, in most cases, count as undue inducement, enticing participation. Participants should be compensated not just for the costs that they endure in order to take part in the study, but also for their time, efforts, unique expertise in some cases and their usually altruistic willingness to participate in human research. However, it does require efforts on behalf of ethics review boards to decide, using common sense and attention to context, whether funds offered are in fact compensation or inducement. It’s not always straightforward.

Thanks to AL for the story!

~ by Nancy Walton on March 6, 2009.

2 Responses to “Condoms and ethics”

  1. This is too funny. Practical and good info to study though. The Kinsley experiments sparked endless debate as well, and yet it still being studied in pscyh textbooks!For some reason, I think these kinds of topics will always be controversial.In the end, it may a) result in further knowledge gained, b) give some poor students a little extra cash and c) put a good second use to those leftover condoms!

  2. This is by far one of the most interesting posts I have seen in a while about condoms. I only wish I had seen it sooner.

    A controversial topic indeed, but if we all keep talking about it, they soon won’t be.

    Condoms save lives!

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