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BACKGROUND: Researchers have a responsibility to protect all participants, especially vulnerable participants, from harm. Vulnerability is increasingly understood to be context specific, yet limited guidance is available regarding the vulnerability and agency of research participants in different cultural settings. This study aims to explore research participants' daily vulnerability and agency, and how these interact with participants' research experiences in their own words. Researchers' views and responses were also explored. METHODS: A qualitative study was conducted around two scrub typhus research studies in northern Thailand. A thematic analysis was carried out on 42 semi-structured interviews with research participants, their families, researchers and key informants. RESULTS: The majority of the research participants belonged to a hill tribe ethnic minority group. Common challenges were related to Thai language barriers, travel difficulties, uncertain legal status, unstable employment, lack of education and healthcare. We did not identify new vulnerabilities but we found that the extent of these vulnerabilities might be underestimated or even hidden from researchers in some cases. Despite these challenges people demonstrated agency in their daily lives and were often motivated and supported in this by family members. The majority of perceived research benefits were related to healthcare and gaining knowledge, while attending follow-up visits could be a burden for some. CONCLUSIONS: Our approach to research in culturally and socioeconomically diverse settings should be more responsive to participants' specific vulnerabilities and abilities evidenced in their daily life, rather than attributing vulnerability on the basis of membership of pre-defined 'vulnerable groups'. Researchers need to be aware and responsive towards the challenges participants face locally in order to minimise the burdens of research participation whilst allowing participants to benefit from research.

Original publication





PLoS One

Publication Date





Humans, Ethnicity, Thailand, Scrub Typhus, Minority Groups, Qualitative Research