A systematic literature review of the ethics of conducting research in the humanitarian setting

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Background: There has been a recent drive toward professionalization of relief services during humanitarian crises. For example, the Sphere Project, a collaborative initiative among several humanitarian groups, attempted to create minimum standards for humanitarian response. The goal of this systematic review is to identify common ethical issues surrounding research in humanitarian settings published since the initiation of the Sphere Project. Methods: With adherence to PRISMA guidelines for systematic review, we searched PubMed and Scopus for articles published after 1997 (Sphere Project initiation) to 2017 with robust discussions of research ethics in the humanitarian setting. Results: Of the 714 unique articles resulting from our search terms, 29 (4.1%) matched our inclusion criteria. Eighteen (62.1%) were published in 2015 or later and only four were published before 2007. The articles were organized into one or more of five non-mutually exclusive categories: 14 (48.2%) expert statements; 9 (31.0%) case studies; 5 (17.2%) literature reviews; 5 (17.2%) original research studies; and two (6.9%) book chapters. Of 11 topics outlined by our analysis, cultural considerations, community engagement, and ethics review were the most common (42.3%, 37.9%, and 34.5% of articles, respectively). Conclusions: This study represents the first systematic review of research ethics in the humanitarian setting. We identified an increase in articles with robust ethical discussions. However, our data highlight a paucity of original research studies, which, along with a continuation of the general trend of growing literature, will need to be remedied if the ideals of the Sphere Project are to be realized.


AUTHOR AFFILIATION: William Bruno, Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, Department of Emergency Medicine, Division of Global Emergency Medicine, United States, williamjbruno87@gmail.com