What are Research Ethics?

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Research ethics encompass a set of principles, standards, and norms that guide the design, methods, analysis, reporting, and publication of scientific research.​1,2​

From the initial conceptualization of a project to the dissemination of results, it is important that researchers’ actions, motives, and goals be guided by an underlying set of ethical principles that, above all else, “protect the dignity, rights, and welfare” of research participants.​2​ While there is no standardized set of ethical principles that all researchers follow, most researchers understand research ethics as being rooted in qualities like reciprocity, justice, respect, and beneficence.​3,4​ Research ethics help to ensure one’s research motives and processes promote the production of scientific knowledge that reciprocally benefits academic communities and the people and places being researched.

Balancing the Production of Scientific Knowledge and Benefiting the People and Places Being Researched

With that definition of research ethics in mind, the question remains: What does it actually mean to be ethical in the context of research?

In other words, how does one actually practice research ethics? These broader questions have long been an important consideration across different disciplines involved in human subjects research. The growing body of ethics literature in the social sciences, humanities, and other fields demonstrates the complexity of ethical issues, decisions, and challenges that must be considered.

In the context of studying populations exposed to a disaster, research ethics are absolutely critical. Disasters cause serious harm and widespread disruption to communities. Research in these settings is necessary to advance knowledge about the needs of disaster-affected populations, helping improve the public health and governmental response. For instance, disaster research can identify populations that may experience barriers to evacuation and thus help guide efficient and effective allocation of transportation and sheltering resources. 

Disasters are dynamic and the associated risks and outcomes continue to evolve as the disaster unfolds. This presents a number of unique ethical challenges for researchers, such as the need to balance rapid deployment and data collection with addressing the more practical needs of survivors, such as access to shelter, food, water, and health services. Given this complexity, it is important to first understand the current guidelines and institutional oversight for the ethical conduct of research, as well as the broader ethical considerations related to the unique nature of disasters.

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  1. 1.
    Resnik DB. What is ethics in research & why is it important? National Institute Of Environmental Health Sciences. Published online 2020. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/resources/bioethics/whatis/index.cfm

  2. 2.
    World Health Organization. Ensuring ethical standards and procedures for research with human beings. World Health Organization.

  3. 3.
    Browne KE, Peek L. Beyond the IRB: An Ethical Toolkit for Long-Term Disaster Research. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. 2014;32(1):82-120.

  4. 4.
    Brown P, Morello-Frosch R, Brody JG, et al. Institutional review board challenges related to community-based participatory research on human exposure to environmental toxins: A case study. Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source. 2010;9(1):39-39. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-9-39