Sona Policies

Procedures for Obtaining & Compensating Research Participants Within the USF Psychology Department Participant Pool

Online Participant Pool Program

The USF Psychology Department first established a cooperative Participant Pool in 1967. Through the years since then, the Pool has grown and become an integral part of the research program in the department. Many researchers, both faculty and graduate students, rely on the Pool for their research. It has always been the intention of those who administer the Pool that it provide participants for as many researchers as possible while, at the same time, provide our undergraduate students an educational exposure to the various methods used in psychological research.

Several years ago, the USF Psychology Department contracted with a company called Xerra to provide and maintain the participant pool program using the internet. The program is called Sona Systems and provides a mechanism by which researchers can recruit participants for their studies, manage appointment times to administer their studies, and keep records of participation for USF undergraduates. The Sona program also accommodates Online Questionnaires so researchers can collect data from participants online.

Educational Component for Students

Participation by our undergraduate students in the pool should be educational for them as much as possible within each study. All researchers using the Pool are required, both by the USF Institutional Review Board (IRB) and the Psychology Department, to offer some educational component to all participants. This is often in the form of a debriefing handout or discussion, explaining the major hypotheses being tested as much as the researcher is able, along with some literature sources if the participant wishes to explore the topic further. At all times, researchers should be open to questions from participants and should, as much as is possible without violating the integrity of their research paradigm, supply information that will enable student/participants to learn about research methods used in Psychology.

Registration of Experiments

RESEARCHERS: Please become familiar with the policies set forth in this document before requesting a researcher account and utilizing the pool.

If wishing to use the USF Psychology Department Participant Pool for the first time, researchers must first request a researcher's account by emailing the participant pool administrator, Jamie Craig. Once the account is open, a researcher can create new studies in the system and submit those studies for approval by the  pool administrator. Before any experiment can be approved, the researcher must submit to the pool administrator a copy of the IRB approval letter. Before the beginning of each semester, researchers that plan to use the pool must submit the Request for Use of Participant Pool Form. This information allows us to balance the needs of students and researchers.

Pool Guidelines

The Psychology Department Participant pool is open only for Psychology faculty and students.

Screening of Participants

When they first set up their own accounts, participants answer a list of questions used to screen participants for specific research projects. These questions generate demographic data such as age, sex, and any other questions on which researchers wish to screen their participants. All screening questions must be submitted to the Pool Administrator before the beginning of the semester and must be in the form to which participants can select their answer from a pull-down menu (e.g., How would you describe your use of alcohol? I do not drink/one drink per month/two drinks per month/etc.)

Mass Testing

Mass testing provides a means for collecting data from participants online that can later be matched to participants and added to laboratory-collected data. Mass testing data can also be used to identify participants for recruitment (e.g., identifying those scoring above a cutoff on a measure of depression) - a feature that cannot be achieved using prescreening (see above). However, it is not a replacement for a stand-alone online questionnaire. Instead it provides a way of separating some data collection from laboratory procedures. All participants registering on Sona must first complete the Mass Testing surveys before they can sign up for research studies. Therefore all studies must require the mass testing survey as a prerequisite. Researchers can then request the responses to their questions from the Sona administrator throughout the semester. Researchers who wish to use these options are responsible for compliance with relevant IRB regulations. The mass testing questionnaire is updated before the start of each semester, so questions must be submitted to the Sona administrator before the start of each semester.

All Credit Must Be on Sona

All research using Pool participants must be credited on Sona. That is, researchers may not arrange to give lists of participants to instructors for credit, instead of having students sign up for their study on Sona. Awarding credit outside Sona creates confusion among students, instructors and pool administrators and, more important, creates mistrust among participants that they are getting the points they are due. Note that researchers can award credit manually to any participants already registered in the pool.


Recruitment of participants for Sona studies must occur within the Sona system. Posting recruitment notices/flyers on walls, bulletin boards, or on Blackboard/Canvas, for Sona studies is generally not allowed. Researchers also should not recruit for Sona studies by making announcements or appeals to students in classrooms. This policy upholds the spirit of avoiding competition for participants among Sona researchers. However, there may be certain circumstances in which researchers are looking for a sample of very specific participants (e.g., parents of 3-year-olds) and may need to post notices or make announcements to prompt potential participants to sign up on Sona. To request permission to post flyers or make classroom announcements for a Sona study, please contact the chairperson of the Participant Pool (contact information at the end of this page). Be aware that any posted advertisements or notices of research must be approved by the IRB prior to use.

Names for Experiments

Every research project in the Pool should have an equal opportunity to be selected by any potential participant. This is the closest a researcher can get to a random sample from the pool. Therefore, to avoid bias, each research project is identified by a number assigned by the Sona Administrator. When setting up your study in Sona please use the same title that appears on the IRB approval letter. The Sona Administrator will keep a record of this title and assign a new numerical title. Pool participants will sign up for appointment times that fit their schedules and will learn what the experiment entails when they arrive at their appointment. The only information about a research project that should be posted on Sona is that which is necessary for the participant to prepare for the appointment (e.g., “Please wear loose clothing.” “Please do not sign up with a friend, as we would like to have teams unfamiliar with one another.”). If you need to include this type of information please enter it upon initial setup in the “description” field listed under the settings menu.

Point System

Students will receive one (1.0) credit point for each 30 minutes, or fraction thereof, for participation in research projects held in house (not online). Participants in online questionnaires will receive ½ (0.5) point for each 30 minutes, or fraction thereof, for participation in web-based studies. Researchers using the Pool may not vary from this point payment schedule. The Participant Pool may be used only for studies which award points for participation. No payment of money may be used for participation in studies using the Pool. There may be, in some cases, a small payment of cash, other prizes, or chances to win a raffle as incentives for performance within studies. In these situations, points are given for participation, and other incentives are used as a research design element intended to control for effort put forth by the participants. In no case shall incentives be listed in the description of any studies.

It is critical that students receive their credit for participation in a research study. Therefore please read and carefully follow the procedures set out in the online tutorial available on the Sona web pages. Here are some general guidelines:

  1. When a student signs up to participate in a research project through Sona, he/she is automatically credited with the designated credit points for that project.
  2. If a student does not show for an appointment the researcher is responsible for removing any automatically awarded points.
  3. If a researcher collects data outside the online program (e.g., collecting data in classes), that researcher is responsible for crediting each participant within the online system. Therefore, it is imperative that researchers be certain that their participants are registered in the Sona program so points can be awarded. If researchers use the program to schedule appointments, then this will not be an issue.
  4. Do not submit a list of participants to the Participant Pool administrator or Program Assistant. Researchers are responsible for utilizing the automated services available in the Online Participant Pool program.
  5. Participants can cancel their appointments through the automated online program up to 12 hours before the scheduled appointment by following the steps set up by the program to cancel an appointment. Participants may also contact the researcher through the contact information accompanying the appointment information.

Withdrawal after consent

If a participant consents to participate in a laboratory study, but then withdraws (or is withdrawn) from the study after consent, researchers must award points based upon the time spent in the study. Therefore, if they withdraw within the first 30 minutes, they should receive 1 point. If they withdraw within the second 30 minutes (min 30 - 60) they should receive 2 points and so on.

Missed/Canceled Experiments

Occasionally, an experimenter will have to cancel an experiment because of schedule conflicts, apparatus breakdowns, etc. If you must cancel or miss previously scheduled experiments, any subject who merely shows up must receive a single point. If you cannot be present, then have someone post a sign-up sheet on the door with the instruction that the experiment has been temporarily canceled and that those scheduled for the appointment will receive one extra credit point. It is the responsibility of the researcher to ensure that experiments are conducted at the time students arrive. Repeated instances of an experimenter failing to show up for scheduled experiments could result in loss of access to the subject pool.

Please remember that it is our privilege to be able to use students in our research and that they should be treated accordingly. It is our responsibility to ensure that every participant leaves with a positive experience. Failure to comply with the above rules or mistreatment of subjects in any way will result in immediate withdrawal of your privileges as an experimenter.

Gaining IRB Approval

A study will not be “activated” on Sona (i.e., visible to participants) until the Sona administrator approves the study. The administrator will not approve the study until they receive confirmation from the researcher that the IRB has approved the study, with the IRB # and the expiration date. To gain IRB approval, researchers must submit an application on eIRB. Procedures and policies for submitting an eIRB application are beyond the scope of this document and can be found at this link. However, there are some specific things to know when submitting an eIRB application for use of the Psychology Department Participant Pool.

  1. If you are using pre-screening, you must have IRB approval to screen based upon the criteria you include in pre-screening.
  2. If you are using Mass Testing, you must have IRB approval to administer the specific surveys using the Mass Testing methodology.
         1. You must also include a statement in your consent document that laboratory                   data will be matched to online mass testing data using a unique identifier (Sona             ID).
          2. You must inform the IRB that you will be collecting identifiable information in                  section 9.1 and describe how you will handle that information.
  3. Online studies and/or studies that any portion of are online must still have a consent statement that participants will read prior to agreeing to participate in the online study - even if the researcher has requested a waiver of documented informed consent.
          1. This statement should include the same components as a documented                    consent form.
          2. This is NOT true for surveys that are to be included in Mass Testing. You do  
              not need your own online consent for surveys to be included in Mass
              Testing. Mass Testing methodology is covered by its own IRB and has its own
              consent statement (but researchers still need approval to administer the
              surveys that they submit for mass testing).
  4. Sona credit does count as “compensation” in section 6.2.1. Please describe this compensation and describe that participants can participate in other studies or complete a course assignment as alternatives participation.

We appreciate your cooperation. The study you save may be your own. If you have any questions about the contents of this memo or items not covered in it, please see the Participant Pool Chairperson listed below.

Kristen Salomon, Ph.D.
Participant Pool Committee Chair
Department of Psychology - PCD 4118G
University of South Florida
Phone: (813) 974-4922


Revised: 06/17/2020