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Use and abuse

I have a question for you. Imagine you were having your car serviced, would you pay the mechanic up front? Or if you had the builders in would you hand over all of the cash before a trowel had been raised? Probably not. Why is it then that we tend to pay our respondents before we've asked them a single question? Talk about a touching faith in human nature.

Of course, before the rise of the dodgy respondent it really wasn't an issue. In much the same way that you could leave your doors open and everywhere was just fields there was an unwritten bond of trust between the researcher and the respondent. They got their money up front and the researcher got 90 minutes of decent chitchat. L.P. Hartley knew what he was talking about when he wrote “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”.

Now, I don't intend this piece to be the In Brief equivalent of a Daily Express editorial; not all respondents are thieving ratbags, most aren't. But their number is growing. When I first started in field it was rare that we heard about any abuse of the incentives system. Respondents turned up on time, they chatted and went home. Now it's a slow week for some studios if at least one respondent doesn't arrive 15 minutes late blaming traffic or public transport but still expecting to get their money.

And worse things happen; I recall one respondent signing for his money and suddenly recalling that he'd left his mobile in the car. You can guess the rest. When I mentioned this to some friends in the business the gleam of recognition was like somebody switching on a lightbulb and, like the Ancient Mariner, they fixed me with a glittering eye. Then they were up and running, mentioning similar instances of respondents nipping out for a fag, to make sure they'd locked their bike, to make a quick phone call, etc.

The thing is that people with an eye for a quick thirty quid used to just turn up for as many groups as they could; it was unlikely that they'd be spotted if they played it clever. Now they've moved on to the next logical step of simply cutting out the whole interview process.

As I mentioned when I consigned dodgy respondents into Room 101 at the MRS Conference (and if you laughed, God bless you) the solution is simple. If they want their money, they either arrive on time and take part or else they sit and wait until the group has finished and get it when everybody else does. I appreciate that it breaks down the old relationship of presumed good faith but unfortunately a determined few respondents have done that already.


Gareth Roberts
MD, Safari Research Ltd

This article was first published in InBrief magazine, September 2009
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009