Letter/Observer Forum

Use of ‘Subjects’ Should Not Be Subjective

To the editor:

Roddy Roediger has informed us that a committee is working to revise the APA Publication Manual. The Manual dictates certain aspects of language usage in journal articles, as APS members may know. Thus, it is a good time to revisit Roddy Roediger’s column “What should they be called?” (Observer, April 2004). Roediger chooses to call the people in his experiments “subjects,” not “participants.” We applaud Roediger’s choice and hope that APS Observer readers will reflect on this issue.

Although the National Institute of Health takes no position on this issue, it is important for psychologists to know that federal regulations regarding the people in psychologists’ experiments refer to those people as subjects. 45 C.F.R. 46, a regulation adopted by 17 federal agencies, refers to “human subjects.” We are unaware of any effort to revise the 45 C.F.R. 46 to replace the term subjects with the term participants. Unless and until that change is made, it is imperative that psychologists refer to the people in their experiments as subjects when discussing their obligations under federal research regulations.

When publishing journal articles, psychologists are free to refer to the people in their experiments by any term they choose, and the American Psychological Association has the right to dictate language usage in APA journals. However, we do not think that the people in psychologists’ experiments should be referred to as participants even in journal articles. To avoid confusion, the same term should be used in journal articles as is used in federal regulations. Also, the term participants implies that subjects are equal partners with the experimenter in the research process, and that they are actively involved in the planning and implementation of the research. That may be a noble sentiment, but it is a false sentiment. Subjects are not equal partners with the experimenter, and terminology that implies that the two are equal is motivated by political correctness, not truth.

Whatever language a reader chooses to use in journal articles, s/he should not criticize peers for using the most accurate term for the people in their experiments. They are subjects.

David Resnik
Bioethicist and Coordinator of Research Ethics, NIEHS, NIH

Charles Bond
Texas Christian University

Note: The opinions expressed in this letter do not represent the views of the NIEHS or NIH.

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