by Ali Hall, Educational Programs Assistant

At a recent discussion at one of PRIM&R’s staff meetings, we took up the issue of how to refer to those who volunteer to participate in research. More specifically, our conversation started with the fact that PRIM&R uses the term “research subject,” rather than the term “research participant.” The significance of this very conscious choice of language had previously managed to escape me, and so I found the ensuing discussion incredibly enlightening.

While research “subject” is the more traditional of the two terms, there has been a shift over the past 25 years or so to use research “participant” when referring to individuals who take part in research, because, many argue, it is more respectful of research volunteers. This shift can be directly traced to the work of the HIV/AIDS activist and cancer survivor communities in the 1980s and 1990s, who demanded not only access to clinical trials, but participation in setting research agendas. I saw first-hand evidence of this shift recently when I received a request from a conference faculty member to change the title of a session at PRIM&R’s 2013 Advancing Ethical Research Conference—specifically, to replace the word “subject” with the word “participant.” In making the request, the individual expressed to me that the term “subject” tends to perpetuate an unhelpful view of the research enterprise and is most likely part of why only 5% of individuals participate in clinical trials nationwide. This person felt strongly that, because it emphasizes the passivity of the individual who is taking part in research, using the term “subject” discourages people from taking part in research and thereby slows the rate of scientific discovery.

I must admit, I found this argument compelling. So why does PRIM&R continue to refer to volunteers as “subjects,” I wondered. Well, what I learned during our staff meeting is that PRIM&R uses “subject” rather than “participant” for a number of carefully considered reasons. For one, the term “participant” is not found anywhere in the federal regulations governing human subjects research, known as the “Common Rule.”  For another, and more substantively, PRIM&R’s view is that the term “subject,” far from being disrespectful of those who volunteer for research, much more accurately and honestly represents the true nature of the research enterprise, including the fact that there is always a power and knowledge differential between those conducting the research and those on whom the research is conducted. In addition, using the term “subject” to refer to those who volunteer to take part in research makes salient the fact that, due to their position of relative vulnerability within the research enterprise, there need to be independent mechanisms to ensure the individuals who volunteer for research are respected and protected. We do not, of course, wish to diminish or ignore the potential for exploitation of research subjects (especially since that is something PRIM&R actively works hard to prevent); indeed, we believe that use of the term “participant” to refer to research volunteers may leave them more vulnerable to exploitation, since it may obscure the need for formal protections.

Now, this doesn’t mean, I also learned, that PRIM&R believes that the term “participant” is never appropriate when referring to those who volunteer for research. In the context of community-based participatory research, for instance, where communities who will be the subjects of the research are integrally involved in both designing the research study and in carrying it out, it seems appropriate to refer to those individuals as “participants” in the research. In addition, we’re currently seeing a rise in “participant-led” and “participant-centered” research, where those being studied act as a driving force behind the research. Examples include self-surveillance, analyses of genomic data, and genome-wide association studies, to name a few, all of which represent a more bottom-up approach to research, as opposed to the more top-down approach favored by traditional scientists.

While I can see why people may think the term “subject” is disrespectful, or even pejorative, when describing people who take part in research, I now understand and appreciate PRIM&R’s choice to stand by it. Being forced to stop and consider the potential implications of using one term over another, has also raised a series of questions relating to human research subjects and the part they play in the overarching research apparatus for me. For instance, are there additional arguments for using one term over the other? Do most researchers think the choice of terminology has significant bearing on the decision of the average individual to participate in research? Please share your thoughts.

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4 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Research “participant” versus research “subject”

    1. Avery Avrakotos, Education and Policy Manager

      Thank you for your question, Sue! While the term “patient” may be accurate when referring to an individual being recruited for a trial, it is PRIM&R’s view that once an individual is enrolled in a research study, the term “subject” is more appropriate.

      In clinical research, decisions about an individual’s care are made according to a pre-established protocol. The primary goal of clinical research is to develop generalizable knowledge that can be applied in the future; any immediate therapeutic benefit to an individual is secondary. In contrast, the chief aim of clinical care is to address a person’s individual and immediate health needs. If potential research subjects do not clearly understand the difference between clinical care and clinical research, therapeutic misconception can result.

      To foster a potential subject’s understanding of the differences between clinical care and clinical research and reduce the potential for therapeutic misconception, attention should be paid to using appropriate language during the informed consent process and throughout course of the trial. Careful language choices, such as the use of the term “subject” or “experiment,” can serve to reinforce this distinction for patients and healthy volunteers as they consider research participation.

      Additionally, it is worth noting that the use of the term “subject” is consistent with language used in the regulatory definitions employed by the Department of Health and Human Services [45 CFR 46.102(f)] and the Food and Drug Administration [21 CFR 50.3(g)].

  1. Steve

    (1) I have never heard of a person actually declining to take part in research simply because of the terms being used to describe them. So if that claim is true, it seems a rare occurrence or something that happens within a specific study area I am unfamiliar with). (2) I view the term "subject" as a respectful reminder that the researcher is focusing on the individual (like the subject of a sentence, the word refers to a critical component of the message). (3) I have also heard that the argument for distinguishing between the terms is because researchers do not "subject" people to research without their consent (whereas this occurs for non-humans). A distinction that reminds me of the German words for eating (essen vs. fressen). Yet there are studies that collect data from people without their knowledge or consent (observational studies, possibly some aspects of deception studies fit here, etc.). (4) While APA seems strongly in favor of a distinction (participants for humans, subjects for non-humans) it seems that PRIM&R hold almost the opposite view due to perceptions of vulnerability. Is there a way to reconcile these views or do you think this will end up being an "agree to disagree" situation?

    Thank you for this thoughtful article.