University of Wisconsin–Madison

For Research Participants

What Is Research?

Video game research group
©UW-Madison University Communications
Photo by: Bryce Richter

When most people are asked about research, they think of scientific or medical research –and with good reason. Right now, there are more than 40,000 medical research studies underway. But research takes other forms, too. Some studies use questionnaires, interviews, or other types of surveys to gather information about habits, opinions, and beliefs. Other studies observe the way people interact with one another or react to certain situations, providing new insights into human behavior.

What do all forms of research have in common? All seek knowledge for the public good. Many would not be possible without human participants.

Benefits and Risks

One way or another, all of us have benefited from research. The vaccines that help prevent diseases and the medications that help manage symptoms are just a few examples of scientific discoveries that resulted from research. Many of the psychological and social support services that we routinely provide to victims of trauma and disaster also were developed in response to research findings.

It’s important to note, however, that research is experimental, and that means it involves risk. The federal government requires researchers to inform participants about the risks involved – and to do everything possible to minimize those risks. Even so, risk can never be completely avoided.

Deciding to Participate

The decision to participate in a research study is a personal one. Certainly, it is helpful to discuss your options with researchers and your family, but ultimately the choice is yours.  Very often it comes down to whether you believe the potential benefits of the study outweigh any potential risks.

There are a number of reasons why people choose to participate in research:

  • Some suffer from life-threatening medical conditions and view research as their last hope. So they agree to help test new drugs or medical devices in research studies known as clinical trials.
  • Some feel strongly about the importance of research and the value of its findings. They choose to participate to advance knowledge and understanding, not just about science and medicine, but also about the human condition – how and why people respond to one another and the world around us.

Of course, there are other reasons as well. But no matter what the reason, it is important that your decision not be made lightly. For helpful information on what to look for when considering a research study, visit our Resources page.