Subject to Change: Sona’s Switch from “Subject” to “Participant”

Published June 15, 2023

In a Nutshell

For those in a hurry to learn what’s new, we’ll start this post by getting straight to the point. We’ve made some small but important changes to the wording in Sona. Specifically, we’ve replaced the term “Human Subjects” with “Human Participants” wherever it occurs. For the most part, only administrators can see all of the (admittedly few) instances of this change. The big exception to this can be seen by scrolling down to the bottom of any page on your Sona site. Where previously it looked something like this:

Old Human Subject Privacy Policy Link

Now, we’ve replaced “subject” with “participant”, and you will instead find something like this:

New Human Subject Privacy Policy Link

We’ve made the same change to every instance of “Human Subjects” on the platform, but mostly these will be visible only to administrators and are quite few in number. For completeness, however, we’ll show one of the few other instances of this change. To view our example for yourself, visit your site’s system settings and scroll down to the options on researcher and participant policy acknowledgement:

Researcher and Participant policy acknowledgement in system settings

The Context

Really, though, the question is less about why we switched to the term “Human Participants” and more about why we had previously used “Human Subjects” in the first place. It’s a fair question. After all, our platform, documentation, website, video tutorials, brochures, and more use the term “participant” rather than “subject”. We refer to our platform as “participant pool management” software. Among the user roles our system utilizes (administrator, researcher, etc.), the largest by far is that of “participant”.

Nor is this user type idly named. Sona participants really do participate in studies, to the point that “recruitment” becomes something of a misnomer. Instead of the typical on-the-spot/in-your-face recruitment methods that researchers are often forced to use (for want of anything better), with Sona participants self-select into studies. They log into Sona as “participants” (not “subjects”), they see available studies, they decide which study or studies they wish to to participate in, and they do so being informed about when and where they will be doing what. Finally, they are also compensated for participation (as opposed to e.g., being enrolled in experiments with protocols that they are subjected to). Our platform is built around granting participants this kind of agency and ethical considerations, not just credit granting.

You can see where this is going: Almost across the board, we always refer to “participants” rather than “subjects”, and with good reason, which would seem to make any reference to “human subjects” rather inconsistent.

Beyond Internal Consistencies

But it’s not just a matter of internal terminological consistency or inconsistency. At least outside of medical research, the recommendations across fields and sources are pretty clear. From reference handbooks for scientists across fields to editorials and/or official statements from numerous scientific societies, researchers are informed that the term “subject” is neither preferred nor recommended. Instead, these sources strongly recommend terms that emphasize the participatory, voluntary, and even mutually beneficial nature of studies with human researchers and researchees. The term most used in practice and most recommended in principle is, naturally, “participant.” The word “subject”, by contrast, often carries an entirely different connotation. In the words of then-APA executive director Dr. Gary R. VandenBos, “‘Subjects’ implies that these are people who are having things done to them, whereas ‘participants’ implies that they gave consent.” (Carey, B. (2004, June 15). The subject is subjects. The New York Times, p. A10.)

This is not to say that there aren’t those who argue that the term “subject” is at least sometimes acceptable. Some critics have argued that the term “participant” may not be particularly applicable to all research with humans. They point in particular to certain protocols in clinical research in which the participatory role is limited to that of informed individual. We still prefer a term that emphasizes this voluntary role. More importantly, research using Sona doesn’t fit into the types of experimental protocols the critics refer to.

So, given the extent to which our entire platform is built around a participatory, mutually beneficial interaction between researchers and participants as well as ethical concerns more generally, why have we kept using the word “subject” in the few places where we use the term “human subject”?

Subject to Legalese

To put it in just a few words: To be consistent with the language used in regulations and governance, such as the Code of Federal Regulations Title 45: Public Welfare, part 46 “Protection of Human Subjects” (45 CFR 46).

At the bottom of a Sona site page, where one used to find “Human Subject” it was accompanied by “Privacy Policy” (see the topmost image above). Academic literature is naturally replete with jargon and other specialized styles and language usage. But the regulations, governance, and other documents that inform ethical decisions by review boards or ethics committees use more legalistic language. Many of these documents are actual international codes or legal acts by national governmental bodies. And for some time the vast majority of international codes, federal regulations, and other guidance documents have continued to use the term ‘subject’.

So when we used the term “human subject” it was to be consistent not with our own terminology, or even with wider scientific practice, but with that of regulations, codes, governance, etc. And despite the increasing switch to “human participants” over the past few decades in the scientific literature and by the scientific community, such changes in policy statements and regulatory language have been far slower.

Present Practices

This remnant of older terminology, borne out of a desire to be consistent with the terms as found in various regulations and related governance protecting the rights of participants, was nonetheless somewhat inconsistent with both wider academic/research terminology as well that employed by Sona. Thankfully, national and international bodies responsible for drafting ethical codes of conduct and regulations protecting human participants have started to recognize this inconsistency. It is now not infrequent to find the term “human participants” in newer drafts or newly released legislature or governance. Perhaps just as importantly, review boards and ethical committees have started to encourage the use of “participants” even when (for historical reasons) certain foundational documents still refer to “human subjects”.

We thought it high time to make the switch ourselves, too.

Related Posts