Conducting research with tribal communities: sovereignty, ethics, and data-sharing issues

Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Jan;120(1):6-10. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1103904. Epub 2011 Sep 2.


Background: When conducting research with American Indian tribes, informed consent beyond conventional institutional review board (IRB) review is needed because of the potential for adverse consequences at a community or governmental level that are unrecognized by academic researchers.

Objectives: In this article, we review sovereignty, research ethics, and data-sharing considerations when doing community-based participatory health-related or natural-resource-related research with American Indian nations and present a model material and data-sharing agreement that meets tribal and university requirements.

Discussion: Only tribal nations themselves can identify potential adverse outcomes, and they can do this only if they understand the assumptions and methods of the proposed research. Tribes must be truly equal partners in study design, data collection, interpretation, and publication. Advances in protection of intellectual property rights (IPR) are also applicable to IRB reviews, as are principles of sovereignty and indigenous rights, all of which affect data ownership and control.

Conclusions: Academic researchers engaged in tribal projects should become familiar with all three areas: sovereignty, ethics and informed consent, and IPR. We recommend developing an agreement with tribal partners that reflects both health-related IRB and natural-resource-related IPR considerations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Ethics Committees, Research
  • Ethics, Research*
  • Human Rights
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American*
  • Information Dissemination / ethics*
  • Intellectual Property
  • Research Design*