Benefits in research are always considered in relation to the risks associated with the study. Beneficence, or the respectful and ethical treatment of people to ensure their wellbeing, guides how Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviewers gauge study benefits. The aim is to maximize the benefit of research while minimizing the harm or risk to participants. However, benefits do not need to be directed to the study participant, but can benefit the research field or people in the future.
Compensation for research participation is not considered a benefit. Research applicants will often state, “No direct benefit,” and still offer payment for participation.
“Overstated benefits” is the most frequent comment researchers receive from IRB reviewers. Overstating research benefits can be coercive. Many researchers assume their research will work out as planned and the efficacy of the intervention will be proven. Untried interventions or unknown correlations mean researchers cannot guarantee benefits to participants. In research involving learning and disabilities, or mental illness, overstating benefits can erode the vital distinction between research and treatment in the minds’ of potential subjects or their parents and guardians. Below are two examples. One example illustrates an overstated benefit, and the other example offers a possible revision.
- Overstated Benefits: The results of this study will provide educators with information about how well learners at different stages of language development know about the form, meaning and use of relative clauses in English expressions.
- Revised Benefits: There are no direct benefits. The results of this study may provide educators with information about the ways language learners know about form, meaning, and use of relative clauses in English expressions.
The key difference between these two examples is the words, “will,” and “may.” In other words, if benefits cannot be guaranteed, a researcher should not use the word “will” or other absolute words (e.g., could, entire, outright, and complete).
Researchers should avoid using words that allude to self-understanding or the knowledge that the subject has helped further the cause of science. Alternatively, researchers should focus on concrete benefits that are independent of outcomes, accruing as part of interventions and data collection procedures. For example:
- You will have a consultation with a personal trainer.
- Your transportation costs will be covered up to $20 dollars.
- Your child will receive a math picture book.
Regarding research benefits, the best approach is often to simply state, “There are no direct benefits to participants.”