Research in disaster settings: a systematic qualitative review of ethical guidelines

BMC Med Ethics. 2016 Oct 21;17(1):62. doi: 10.1186/s12910-016-0148-7.


Background: Conducting research during or in the aftermath of disasters poses many specific practical and ethical challenges. This is particularly the case with research involving human subjects. The extraordinary circumstances of research conducted in disaster settings require appropriate regulations to ensure the protection of human participants. The goal of this study is to systematically and qualitatively review the existing ethical guidelines for disaster research by using the constant comparative method (CCM).

Methods: We performed a systematic qualitative review of disaster research ethics guidelines to collect and compare existing regulations. Guidelines were identified by a three-tiered search strategy: 1) searching databases (PubMed and Google Scholar), 2) an Internet search (Google), and 3) a search of the references in the included documents from the first two searches. We used the constant comparative method (CCM) for analysis of included guidelines.

Results: Fourteen full text guidelines were included for analysis. The included guidelines covered the period 2000-2014. Qualitative analysis of the included guidelines revealed two core themes: vulnerability and research ethics committee review. Within each of the two core themes, various categories and subcategories were identified.

Conclusions: Some concepts and terms identified in analyzed guidelines are used in an inconsistent manner and applied in different contexts. Conceptual clarity is needed in this area as well as empirical evidence to support the statements and requirements included in analyzed guidelines.

Keywords: Disaster; Disaster research; Ethics guidelines; Research ethics; Research ethics committee; Vulnerability.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Disasters*
  • Ethics Committees, Research*
  • Ethics, Research*
  • Humans
  • Research*
  • Social Control, Formal
  • Vulnerable Populations*