July 20, 2023
Research relies on people willing to participate in studies for the betterment of society. Some studies require time consuming surveys or testing with no immediate advantage to the participants. It raises questions about the characteristics of people who selflessly dedicate substantial time to such endeavors.
Interestingly, researchers conducting these studies ponder the same questions as they strive to avoid participation bias.
What is participation bias and how does it affect research?
Also referred to as non-response bias, participation bias can happen when certain traits of the people participating in the study are not representative of the broader population. This can lead to those people having a disproportionate impact on the study’s outcomes–skewing the results.
For scientists, participation bias is like a complex puzzle, adding layers of nuance to the research landscape.
Is a willingness to participate genetic?
A recent study published in Nature Genetics examined the genetic aspect of participation in large-scale genetic studies, which often suffer from skewed representation. Researchers from the University of Oxford analyzed genetic variants within the UK Biobank, an extensive repository of genomic and health data. Their investigation aimed to identify specific genetic variations that distinguish people who participate from those who shy away. Surprisingly, they discovered certain genetic variants were associated with increased participation, more prevalent among shared haplotypes, a set of DNA variants along a single chromosome that tend to be inherited together, suggesting there is a genetic influence on an individuals’ propensity to participate.
However, these individual genetic variants alone did not provide a robust link to participation. To deepen their understanding, the researchers developed a polygenic score that considered the effects of approximately 500,000 genetic variants associated with study participation. Ultimately, they found that these genes accounted for only a small fraction of an individual’s inclination to participate, highlighting the multifaceted nature of this phenomenon.
Furthermore, the study revealed intriguing connections between the participation polygenic score with education levels and body mass index. Although only partially overlapping, this suggests that participation in studies is influenced by a combination of behavioral, socioeconomic and genetic factors.
As we strive for inclusive and representative research, it becomes imperative to comprehend and address participation bias. We can foster a research landscape that reflects the complexities and diversity of our human population by embracing innovative approaches to attract diverse participants.
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