The Economic Research Lab (ERL) at the Department of Economics at Texas A&M University supports laboratory and field experimental research for faculty and student projects. The Lab maintains a staff, including a lab manager and part-time lab assistants and programmers, and houses a computer lab consisting of 36 fixed stations. ERL services are designed to keep the barriers to entry for conducting experimental research low, and include assistance with securing IRB approval, recruiting subjects, maintaining the subject data base, computer interface programming, protocol review, assistance with running lab, online and field experiments, and maintaining an archive of protocols and data.
At present the subject database utilizes custom software, ORSEE, and contains the names of the over 4000 subjects in the subject pool. Subjects are recruited by a general email to the student body and in-class visits to Texas A&M undergraduate classes. Of the subject pool, roughly 2900 subjects joined in the last 2 years and 1500 subjects in the pool have participated in experiments in the last 2 years. The subjects in the subject pool are primarily undergraduates at Texas A&M University. Recent surveys conducted during experiments suggest 52% of the subjects are women, and 53% self-report as non-white. The most common major for subjects is engineering followed by business, economics and biomedical sciences, reflecting the composition of the undergraduate student population. The average subject is of age 20.87, and report median family (parental) income of about $80,000.
The policies of the lab are flexible to allow for the instructing, monitoring and paying of subjects to be determined by the specific research question being examined. Instructions are written on paper and given to all subjects, or programmed into the experimental software and found on the subjects’ computer screens. As with most economics experiments, standard procedure dictates that instructions be read aloud by the experimenter to all subjects to assure that the information contained in the instructions is common knowledge. ERL staff, who are managed by the BEPP Program Director, conduct the experiments and monitor subject behavior. All staff are certified as trained in proper protocols for human subject research. Subject decisions are either recorded by computer software (for a computer-based experiment) or written on paper (for a paper-based experiment). Payment includes a showup fee and earnings in the specific experiments, which are determined by the subjects’ decisions. Payment procedures may also vary depending on the exact research question being asked. Some research may require more confidential payment procedures than others (in some cases, double blind payment, where the person making the payment has no other connection with the experiment, and does not see subject decisions) and some may require payments to be received with a delay (often sent through the mail or via Google Wallet or Paypal). Generally payment is given confidentially to subjects in cash in an envelope, one-by-one at a dedicated payment window outside the Economic Research Laboratory immediately following completion of the experiment.
Most experiments run in the ERL are computer-based and many use the software program z-tree (Fischbacher 2007), a simplified development platform created for economics experiments. However, the availability of a dedicated programmer allows the lab to use a number of other languages should that be required (e.g., C++, Visual Basic, HTML, PHP). Pen and paper experiments are also sometimes used. The programmer and nearly all of the graduate and undergraduate staff of 15 students participate in test-runs of each program, meticulously checking for errors that might generate bad data. This minimizes the possibility of wasting experimental funds due to software bugs.
Confidentiality of data is paramount. Paper records are stored in locked cabinets inside PI offices or the BEPP center. Computer-generated data is recorded to servers in the lab that are disconnected from external internet. Data is only stored on PI’s computers after any identifying information is removed. Texas A&M’s Institutional Review Board assures that subjects as well as subject data are treated in a manner consistent with all applicable laws and good research practices.
The lab and its surrounding facilities are used only for experimental economics and classroom exercises based on experimental protocols. Outside of the occasional economics class, their sole purpose is experimental economics research. This assures time is available for experiments and reduces the opportunity cost of any particular experiment. Thus the use of the lab can be thought of as “low-cost.” Subjects are able to access the lab easily; undergraduates can take free shuttle to arrive at lab, most are familiar with building from their coursework. The lab is also accessible for those with disabilities. The station is equipped with facilities for disabled persons, including computer stations and ramps.