Controller's Department

Incentives versus Compensation

Q: What is the difference between incentives and compensation?
A: Incentives are low-value payment instruments/goods given to participants to encourage them to participate in the research. To be considered an incentive, the payment/goods must be provided to all persons in the study and the value of the payment/item must be $20.00 or less.

Compensation is payment to research participants provided after participation in a research activity. Payments to individuals in research studies will be recorded as other income. Payment types may include, but are not limited to, checks, cash, gift certificates, personal property, and other items of value. Iowa State University has adopted the following procedures to ensure research participant payments are reported in accordance with state and federal income reporting requirements, while maintaining an appropriate level of confidentiality.

Q: How are incentives documented?
A: Researchers must maintain lists of all persons in the study who received the incentive but are not required to obtain a receipt for the incentive.

Research Participant Payment Process

This page will discuss the payment process to research participants paid from university resources. University resources include all funds managed by the university or the foundation through the use of program, grant, project, or spendable gift worktags within Workday. These requirements are not applicable when incentives/compensation are funded solely from personal, non-university resources.

Iowa State University (ISU) balances its responsibility to maintain confidentiality of information about human research subjects with record-keeping requirements of the State of Iowa, grantor agencies, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Research participants should be informed that the information collected allows the University to meet government reporting obligations and precautions are in place to keep their information secure. Participants may be allowed to participate without receiving payment if they do not wish to provide identifying information.

Research Participant Receipt Form (RFPF)

Participant payments must be properly documented for audit purposes, proof of payment, and potential tax reporting.

All research participants receiving compensation must complete an Iowa State University Research Participant Receipt Form (RPRF) with ONE exception below**.

  1. Research Participant Receipt Form (RPRF)
    • A social security number (SSN) or taxpayer identification number (TIN) is only required if payment is $100 or larger. The participant must provide a Social Security number and address to comply with IRS reporting requirements. See section below for payments to non-resident aliens. As indicated on the RPRF, it is necessary to forward a copy of the Tax Office for IRS reporting purposes. To ensure proper tax reporting and withholding, we strongly encourage you to pay by Supplier Invoice, rather than by cash or gift certificate when the amount is $100.00 or more. The Compliance Office will retain the documentation in secure storage. If a research participant’s total compensation from ISU equals or exceeds $600, ISU is required to issue an IRS Form 1099-MISC.

These forms are DocuSign enabled which allows for electronic signatures. Please see DocuSign Instructions on how to establish DocuSign for this purpose.

**For ELECTRONIC gift cards under $100 ONLY, the gift card purchase receipt provided by the card supplier (US Bank, Tango, Amazon), including the recipients’ names and email addresses, is allowed as documentation for the participant payments.

RPRFs are considered confidential and are handled by employees in the Division of Operations and Finance who have signed confidentiality statements. The University recommends that departments with staff involved in the processing payments to human subjects and/or the retention of documentation, require their staff to sign similar confidentiality statements. Researchers and ISU employees and students must be aware of and follow University policy on Social Security Number Protection.

Research Participant Payments to Non-resident aliens

Due to tax reporting considerations, we strongly recommend paying a non-resident alien on a supplier invoice for research participation, rather than with cash or gift card.

Non-resident aliens should complete a W-8BEN to apply for exemption from 30% withholding. Exemption from withholding requires 1.) having a U.S. social security number or individual taxpayer identification number, 2.) being a citizen of a country with an applicable tax treaty with the U.S., and 3.) being in the U.S. for fewer than the maximum allowable days. Regardless of the amount, a 1042-S form will be submitted to the IRS.

It is crucial to properly identify non-resident aliens. If we do not withhold the proper amount, your department will be assessed for the adjustment for withholding.

How do I Pay Research Participants?

  • Direct Payments by Check

Direct payments of less than $100.00 to research participants by check will be made by using an Ad Hoc Payment. Direct payments of $100.00 or more to research participants by check will be made by using a Supplier Invoice. An RPRF must be completed before payment processing and attached as documentation to the Supplier Invoice or Ad Hoc Payment. To maintain confidentiality, minimal business purpose information is required on a Supplier Invoice or Ad Hoc Payment.

All check payments to research participants should use this spend category: SC10619 Participant Payment

  • Direct Payments by Cash

Payments to research participants by cash or with external bank accounts is discouraged as a primary payment method. The suggested payment method is through the purchase of gift cards which is discussed in more detail below.

If payment must be made via cash, a petty cash request would be requested using an Ad Hoc Bank Transaction. Departments should follow the University’s outlined petty cash process. Research participants must sign an RPRF at the time they receive their cash payment. Departments will document use of their petty cash advance by processing an Accounting Journal to clear the advance and attaching the RPRFs. A copy of the RPRF must be sent to the Tax Office for payments $100 or more.

  • Payments by Gift Certificates/Gift Cards or Other Property

If the Principal Investigator elects to provide compensation using gift certificates/gift cards or other property, such items can be procured via multiple channels.

  • Purchasing Gift Cards with an ISU P-Card or T&H Card:
    P-Card or T&H Card purchases must comply with procurement and travel and hospitality card policies. The department must complete an RPRF for each gift certificate/gift card or property disbursed. The RPRF(s) and the original vendor receipt should be kept with the P-card or T&H Card transaction records in the department and attached to the Workday transaction (PCV or Expense Report).

    T&H Card: May be used to purchase gift cards from restaurants or coffee shops. Cannot be used to purchase Amazon Gift Cards.

    P-Card: May be used to purchase gift cards from retailers other than restaurants and coffee shops (Hy-Vee, local businesses, etc.). Cannot be used to purchase Amazon Gift Cards.

    When the amount is $100 or more, we strongly encourage you to pay by Supplier Invoice, rather than by cash or gift certificate, to ensure proper tax reporting and withholding.

    If gift certificates/gift cards or property cannot be purchased using your P-card or T&H Card because of transaction limits, a vendor’s non-acceptance of Visa, or for any other reason, contact Procurement Services for assistance.

  • Purchasing Gift Cards via a Request to Procurement:
    Request gift cards via Procurement Service’s Gift Card Request Form.

    The department must complete an RPRF for each gift certificate/gift card or property disbursed. The RPRF(s) should be provided when requesting the cards and provide the worktag utilized for paying for the gift cards requested. If the participants are not known at the time of the request or you are still completing or obtaining signatures on these forms, they can be attached to the Journal Entry in Workday by emailing (please make sure to include the JE Number that is emailed to you by

    Note: Grant Worktags should only be used when the gift cards are to be handed out immediately. The time between the gift card request and the time the cards are distributed should be minimized.

  • Use of Mechanical Turk (MTurk) or other online data collection platforms:
    Funds are loaded into the Amazon program for MTurk using an ISU P-Card. In the settlement process of the charges on the procurement card, the information regarding the number of and amount of participants payments actually paid should be attached to the P-Card (PCV) transaction. An RPRF form is not required but documentation of the individual payment amounts (how the payment added to the platform was utilized) is required to support the charge. This is available in the transaction history within these platforms. Any funds not used must be returned to the P-Card.

Expense Coding for Research Participant Payments

All payments to research participants should use this spend category: SC10619 Participant Payment.

Procurement will create a journal entry to charge the Worktag provided on the request form for gift cards ordered. For sponsored awards, these transactions are viewed as prepaid expenses and thus not subject to the 90-day threshold of the ISU Cost Transfer Policy.

Refunds and Cash Repayments

Any gift certificates/gift cards or other property that are not used should not be charged to a grant worktag. Only gift cards/gift certificates given to participants should be charged to a grant worktag. The unused portion of a cash advance/petty cash should be deposited back into the account from which it was originally charged within 30 days from when the cash advance/petty cash was issued. Instructions on that reconciliation process can be found here: Replenishing a Petty Cash Fund.

Questions regarding the processes for making payments to research participants may be directed to one of the following individuals:
Dave Baker, Controller's Department
Cory Harms, Procurement Services

Questions regarding implementing the requirements while maintaining confidentiality requirements for the Institutional Review Board (IRB): Kerry Agnitsch, Office for Research Ethics.

Link to a Summary of Research Participant Payment Options.

This page was last updated on May 11, 2023.