Disaster research involves working with people who have been suddenly or recently impacted by widespread community-level disruption causing potential physical or psychological harm. This makes ethical decision-making that goes into designing a study even more important and further amplifies the need to ensure that ethics infuses the entire conceptualization of the study.
Before even considering the ethical implications of study design, however, researchers must decide whether they should conduct the research at all. There have been challenges to conducting any research in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, such as in the case of a mass casualty event. Following the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand, for instance, there was a temporary moratorium placed on social science research to prevent studies from placing undue burdens on overwhelmed groups.1 Determining whether the benefits of a study outweigh the potential risks can help researchers to decide whether it is ethical to embark on a study.
If a researcher decides to move forward with designing a study, they must consider their standard research planning questions with the disaster context of their study population in mind. These questions include: (1) what research questions to ask; (2) who to study; (3) what methods to use; (4) who to collaborate with; (5) when to initiate the study; and (6) how to disseminate findings.
1.Beaven S, Wilson T, Johnston L, Johnston D, Smith R. Research engagement after disasters: Research coordination before, during, and after the 2011-2012 Canterbury Earthquake Sequence, New Zealand. Earthquake Spectra. 2016;32(2):713-735. doi:10.1193/082714EQS134M