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Medical students should be compensated for research work

June 11, 2010

It’s summertime once again, which for many medical students means helping out with a research project over the next 8 weeks.  Participating in the design, execution and presentation of medical research is an invaluable learning experience for medical students.  The growth of evidence based medicine means current and future physicians need to know how evidence is generated in order to effectively evaluate it and judiciously apply it to their practice.  Participating in research projects is the most efficient way to learn the strengths and weaknesses of many different types of medical research.  Medical students who materially contribute to research projects should be compensated at fair market value for their work.  Unfortunately, researchers commonly exploit the low status of medical students and use them as free labor.  Without the help of medical students, researchers would either have to do this work themselves (for which they are compensated in the form of a salary) or hire a research assistant (who are also compensated monetarily).  Medical students should not be treated any differently in terms of compensation simply because of their status as a “student.”  If anything, institutions should have specific protections for medical students in such situations.  The status divide between a researcher (who are often professors also) and a medical student precludes the student from demanding fair compensation.  Students who do so run the risk (perceived or real) of alienating themselves and losing out on a valuable learning experience.  Moreover, research experience looks very good on residency applications, forcing medical students to do whatever it takes (e.g.–work for free) to get such experience.  In these scenarios, medical students should be considered a vulnerable population and fall under specific policies to protect their rights to fair compensation.  More specifically, the opportunity for co-authorship on any presentation of research work should not be considered fair compensation.  Students should be included as co-authors if their contribution to the work meets the guidelines set forth by the American Medical Association and other relevant organizations, but this is not sufficient.  Monetary compensation for work must also be rendered, as it would be if the assistant was a non-student.

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