The gift of spit (and the obligation to return it): How consumers of online genetic testing services participate in research

A. Harris*, S. Wyatt, S. E. Kelly

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


People can now send a sample of their saliva to an internet-based company in order to discover genetic information about themselves. Entering this ‘direct-to-consumer’ genetic testing (DTC GT) marketplace can result in enticement to engage in various forms of ‘participatory’ practices, such as taking part in genetic research. In this article, we analyse the research activities of one of the largest and best-known DTC GT companies, 23andMe. 23andMe research is based on what they term ‘participant-led’ research methodologies, which utilize a combination of consumers’ genetic information and self-reported data in the form of completed online surveys. Our analysis shows that 23andMe presents research participation as a form of gift exchange, implying some kind of social bond. Social ties between the consumer-participant and 23andMe are integral to the company's ‘novel’ research agenda which relies on the ongoing aggregation of data from a loyal re-contactable cohort. We argue that the notion of gift exchange is used to draw attention away from the free, clinical labour which drives the profitability of 23andMe. We offer an account of a particular form of online research participation which differs from other kinds of participatory medical research. As medical research becomes increasingly driven by large data sets and internet-based research methods, we offer a timely analysis of emerging participatory practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)236-257
Number of pages22
JournalInformation, communication and society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2013


  • 0
  • RISK
  • Web 2
  • biomedical research
  • genetic testing
  • gift exchange
  • internet
  • participation


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