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.

The Participant pool is administered online using Sona Systems. Sona allows researchers to recruit participants, manage study appointment times, and maintain records of participation for USF undergraduates. Sona also allows researchers to administer online questionnaires, either using Sona’s online survey feature or allowing studies to link to an external survey site (e.g., Qualtrics). 

Educational Component for Students

Participation by our undergraduate students in the pool should be educational for them as much as possible within each study. Researchers using the Pool should consider offering 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.

Pool Guidelines

The Psychology Department Participant pool is open only for Psychology Department faculty, Psychology Department graduate students and other students working with Psychology Department faculty/graduate students at USF.

Opening a Researcher Account in Sona

To begin using Sona, researchers must first request a researcher's account by emailing the participant pool administrator for your home campus (Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota/Manatee). The contact information for each campus Sona administrator can be found here. Please include the name of the Psychology faculty member and/or graduate student with whom the researcher works in the email. Once the account is open, a researcher can create new studies in the system and submit those studies for approval by the pool administrator.

Posting and Approval of New Studies

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.

Before any experiment can be approved, the researcher must submit to the pool administrator a copy of the IRB approval letter and IRB-approved study protocol.

Screening of Participants

When student participants first set up their own accounts, they answer a list of questions used to screen for specific research projects. These questions generate demographic data such as age, sex, and any other questions on which researchers wish to prescreen their participants. All prescreening 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.).

Researchers must have IRB approval to ask and screen using the questions submitted to Sona. When setting up a new study in Sona, researchers can filter which students can see their study based on their responses to the pre-screening questions.  However, prescreening data cannot be identified or downloaded to be used as data because Sona does not allow this capability. Also, prescreening is on the basis of single-items responses only; Responses cannot be summed across items to screen on a summary score.

Mass Testing

Mass testing provides a means for collecting data from participants that can be matched to participants and later combined with 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, such as when administering the scale during the laboratory session would arouse suspicion or reveal the true nature of the hypotheses. 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 must have IRB approval to administer any scales in Mass Testing prior to those scales being included in Mass Testing. Researchers will receive an email at the beginning of the semester asking them to indicate what they would like included in Mass Testing, if using. Researchers should submit their IRB approval letter, approved IRB protocol, a rationale for why these items need to be administered in Mass Testing, the survey names, and the number items they would like included. Researchers will enter their own Mass Testing items into their own online study in Sona (cannot be in Qualtrics or other survey software). The study name should be the researcher’s specific IRB number (e.g., STUDY000999). Each item must be set to allow participants to skip/not answer the question. The Mass Testing coordinators will then copy those items into the larger Mass Testing Survey that participants will access. The mass testing questionnaire is created before the start of each semester and cannot be changed once posted, so questions can only 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 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, or by using the "email eligible participants" function of Sona. 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, or send emails through Sona to prompt potential participants to sign up on Sona. To request permission to post flyers, make classroom announcements, or send emails to eligible participants for a Sona study, please contact the chairperson of the Participant Pool Committee. Be aware that any posted advertisements or notices of research must be approved by the IRB prior to use.

Names and Descriptions 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.

When setting up a study, no information should be entered in the "Detailed Description" box, unless the information 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." "This study includes measures to assess inattention. If you do not pass these attention checks, you will not receive your Sona points as compensation.”). The Pool administrators have discretion as to whether this information is necessary and may remove it if deemed unnecessary.

Point System

Students will receive one (1.0) credit point for each 30 minutes, or fraction thereof, for participation in research projects that require synchronous interaction with researchers (either face-to-face interactions or synchronous online interactions with researchers). Participants in asynchronous online studies 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 compensation in studies using the Pool. However, in some cases, small payments of cash or other prizes are allowed as incentives for performance within studies. In these situations, points are given as compensation 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. 

Use of Inattention Checks

Researchers conducting research online often use measures designed to assess whether or not the participant was paying attention while responding to the study. Researchers are allowed to withhold Sona points from participants who demonstrate inattention by their responses to inattention check measures. However, researchers can only withhold Sona points for inattention if: 1) a demonstrated inattention check measure is used; 2) the researchers have in their approved IRB protocol for the study; 3) the IRB approved consent document states that Sona compensation will be withheld if the participant doesn't pass attention checks and; 4) the following is stated in the "Detailed Description" box students will see when signing up for the study: "This study includes measures to assess inattention. If you do not pass these attention checks, you will not receive your Sona points as compensation."

Withdrawal after consent

If a participant consents to participate in a synchronous interaction 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 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 the research study 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 by sending the IRB approval letter and IRB-approved protocol document. To gain IRB approval, researchers must submit an application to the USF IRB. Procedures and policies for submitting an IRB 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 IRB application for use of the Psychology Department Participant Pool.

  1. If you are using prescreening, you must have IRB approval to screen based upon the criteria you include in prescreening.
  2. If you are using Mass Testing, you must have IRB approval to administer the specific surveys using the Mass Testing methodology.
  3. 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 (stating what unique identifier you will use, e.g., name and/or SonaID).
  4. 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. Typically, the consent document follows the template set forth by the IRB.
    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).
  5. If you plan to include any of the allowed information in the "Detailed Description" of your study posting, please upload that information as a recruitment script in your IRB application.
  6. Sona credit qualifies as compensation. In your IRB protocol, you should describe the amount of Sona compensation to be given and also note that participants can participate in other studies or complete a course assignment as alternatives to 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: 01/05/2022