Team Subject or Team Participant? #subjectvsparticipant

A while ago, I started to contemplate my own scientific writing and stumbled upon a 10-year-old dilemma. What to say? Subject or Participant. I have been schooled both in psychiatry, molecular biology, epidemiology and neuroscience.  And I have been criticized for using both of these terms. 

Finally, the Tweet junkie that I am, I asked my fellow Twitterers for some opinions. Why do they choose either? What is the difference and why would they avoid the other?

While most journals provide 10 pages of instructions how to format a table and structure the text, there isn’t a single word mentioned about what we should call the very core of our study; the people who provide the data.

So I received some answers.

The first answer confirmed my suspicion. Participant doesn’t sound clinical enough.  Is Participant just a politically correct term? But then again, most clinical, medical and public health studies are based on people who are active participants in an intervention study. Which was reflected upon in the next tweet.

This sounded like a great reasoning, yet in reality, even human animals are not always voluntary participants. For example, many studies based on registries require no consent from those providing data (as data information is made non-identifiable), furthermore, even studies which use human animals as volunteers tend to use this term. The curiousity thickens.


One of the reasonings I had was; Could it be  –

While some tend to see Subject as dehumanizing, other do not. Could it be culture? Could it be a simple matter of language? In a world of global science, where engligh is our common language, could it be that the word participants or subject just seems to sound better in some translations? And why do so few write “volunteer” instead? There are no right or wrongs.  By the sheer number of questions, I guess my curiosity is not fed. 

So please continue the debate, preferably on twitter so I can indulge in your arguments under the hashtag


Or take the poll here.


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