Recruiting people for your research project - plan ahead! (Sara Paradowski)

Photo by Connor McSheffrey |
So, you’ve got an idea for a research project.

You’ve probably reviewed some of the literature to help you focus and fine-tune your idea to a more manageable project to fit with the timelines you have.

You have had to constantly remind yourself that you are one person with limited resources and interviewing 5000 people isn’t going to be a reasonable expectation and that’s OK.

In the end, you decide that 32 participants will give you sufficient data to analyse and write about.
But how do you get 32 participants to take part in your research?

Where do you find 32 people who are willing to spend some of their time with you, possibly discuss a sensitive topic or give you some of their blood to test?

And how do you make sure the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) will be accepting of the way you wish to recruit your participants?

Well, let’s start with the HREC. For an HREC to be comfortable with the recruitment methods proposed, recruitment must be fair and coercion free. Participants should be volunteering to take part.

Snowball recruitment is one such method. If you wish to use it, you need to consider whether you risk breaching someone’s privacy or if there’s a chance of real or perceived coercion. There are two ways to apply snowball recruitment:

1. To ask current participants to pass on the contact details of potential participants to you as a researcher. 

This creates concerns around privacy. Did the potential participant know current participants would be handing out their personal information to La Trobe researchers? Probably not.

It can also lead to complaints. For example, how often is too often to contact someone about taking part in a research project? If there is a potential for a breach of privacy, you must demonstrate the potential benefits of the research proceeding in such a manner and explain why it is necessary.

2. To ask current participants to pass on details about the study to potential participants. 

This could be something as simple as passing on the Participant Information Statement or creating business cards with your contact details on and/or details of the study. Ethics committees usually prefer this.


There are lots of ways to recruit participants, including:

  • online forums; 
  • through social media advertisements; 
  • search engine advertising; 
  • word of mouth; 
  • use of professional networks to spread the word; 
  • setting up a stall at conferences or events; 
  • hardcopy posters put up on noticeboards around campus; 
  • using existing databases to obtain contact details of potential participants; 
  • collaborating with researchers conducting similar projects with similar participant cohorts; 
  • placing an advertisement or notice in a relevant newsletter or on a relevant webpage; or
  • creating a website, logo, acronym and marketing plan for the project.

My top four tips for you to consider when planning the recruitment part of your project are:

1. Plan to use more than one avenue for recruitment. 
Think of it more like a recruitment strategy.

2. Explain your recruitment strategy in your human ethics application. 
You wouldn’t believe the number of times I see ‘I will put up posters’ with no information on where and no draft provided of the poster.

If you plan to use Facebook, explain how. Will you set up a Facebook page specifically for the study, will you use Facebook advertising, how will you manage the comments, will you try to keep personal and professional separate or utilise your personal networks? All this needs to be thought through and explained to the HREC.

3. Be creative. 
Recruiting participants can be really hard and sometimes you may need to think outside the box.

4. Ensure your recruitment methods are appropriate for the participants you need to recruit. 
This may seem really obvious but it’s also really important. A method that isn’t appropriate can cause risk to participants and can mean you spend a hell of a lot of time figuring out how to do something that isn’t going to be worthwhile.

Here are a couple of great papers from La Trobe researchers, which outline a number of different ways to recruit:
  • Morgan, A. J., Jorm, A. F., & Mackinnon, A. J. (2013). Internet-based recruitment to a depression prevention intervention: Lessons from the Mood Memos study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(2), e31. doi: 10.2196/jmir.2262
  • Harris, M. L., Loxton, D., Wigginton, B., & Lucke, J.C. (2015) Recruiting online: Lessons from a longitudinal study of contraception and pregnancy intentions of young Australian women, American Journal of Epidemiology, 181(10):737-746

Other useful links:


Sara Paradowski joined La Trobe in November 2013 as the Senior Human Ethics Officer.

She has worked in a research ethics environment for nearly 6 years, and has previously worked with a Human Research Ethics Committee, an Animal Ethics Committee, and an Institutional Biosafety Committee. These experiences provide her with a broad knowledge of research governance.

Sara’s role at La Trobe University is to provide executive support to the University Human Ethics Committee (the registered HREC at La Trobe), and advice on human research ethics to the institution's students and researchers.