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Systematic Reviews in Educational Research pp 41–54 Cite as

Ethical Considerations of Conducting Systematic Reviews in Educational Research

  • Harsh Suri 6  
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  • First Online: 22 November 2019

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Ethical considerations of conducting systematic reviews in educational research are not typically discussed explicitly. However, systematic reviews are frequently read and cited in documents that influence educational policy and practice. Hence, ethical issues associated with what and how systematic reviews are produced and used have serious implications. It becomes imperative for systematic reviewers to reflexively engage with a variety of ethical issues associated with potential conflicts of interest and issues of voice and representation. This chapter discusses how systematic reviewers can draw upon the philosophical traditions of consequentialism, deontology or virtue ethics to situate their ethical decision-making.

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Ethical considerations of conducting systematic reviews in educational research are not typically discussed explicitly. As an illustration, ‘ethics’ is not listed as a term in the index of the second edition of ‘An Introduction to Systematic Reviews’ (Gough et al. 2017 ). This chapter draws from my earlier in-depth discussion of this topic in the Qualitative Research Journal (Suri 2008 ) along with more recent publications by colleagues in the field of research ethics and methods of research synthesis.

Unlike primary researchers, systematic reviewers do not collect deeply personal, sensitive or confidential information from participants. Systematic reviewers use publicly accessible documents as evidence and are seldom required to seek an institutional ethics approval before commencing a systematic review. Institutional Review Boards for ethical conduct of research do not typically include guidelines for systematic reviews. Nonetheless, in the past four decades systematic reviews have evolved to become more methodologically inclusive and play a powerful role in influencing policy, practice, further research and public perception. Hence, ethical considerations of how interests of different stakeholders are represented in a research review have become critical (Franklin 1999 ; Hammersley 2003 ; Harlen and Crick 2004 ; Popkewitz 1999 ).

Educational researchers often draw upon the philosophical traditions of consequentialism, deontology or virtue ethics to situate their ethical decision-making. Consequentialism or utilitarianism focuses on maximising benefit and minimising harm by undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of potential positive and negative impacts of research on all stakeholders. Deontology or universalism stems from Immanuel Kant’s logic that certain actions are inherently right or wrong and hence ends cannot justify the means. A deontological viewpoint is underpinned by rights-based theories that emphasise universal adherence to the principles of beneficence (do good), non-maleficence (prevent harm), justice, honesty and gratitude. While both consequentialism and deontology focus on actions and behaviour, virtue ethics focuses on being virtuous, especially in relationships with various stakeholders. There are several overlaps, as well as tensions, between and across these philosophical traditions (Brooks et al. 2014 ; Cohen et al. 2018 ).

Recognising the inherently situated nature of ethical decision-making, I am selectively eclectic in drawing from each of these traditions. I discuss a variety of ethical considerations of conducting systematic reviews informed by rights-based theories, ethics of care and Foucauldian ethics. Rights-based theories underpin deontology and consequentialism. Most regulatory research ethics guidelines, such as those offered by British Educational Research Association (BERA 2018 ) and American Educational Research Association are premised on rights-based theories that emphasises basic human rights, such as liberty, equality and dignity. Ethics of care prioritises attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness (Tronto 2005 ). Foucauldian ethics highlights the relationship of power and knowledge (Ball 2013 ).

In my earlier publications, I have identified the following three guiding principles for a quality research synthesis (Suri 2018 ; Suri and Clarke 2009 ):

Informed subjectivity and reflexivity

Purposefully informed selective inclusivity

Audience-appropriate transparency

In the rest of this chapter, I will discuss how these guiding principles can support ethical decision making in systematic reviews in each of the following six phases of systematic reviews as identified in my earlier publications (Suri 2014 ):

identifying an appropriate epistemological orientation

identifying an appropriate purpose

searching for relevant literature

evaluating, interpreting and distilling evidence from selected reports

constructing connected understandings

communicating with an audience

To promote ethical production and use of systematic reviews through this chapter, I have used questioning as a strategic tool with the purpose of raising awareness about a variety of ethical considerations among systematic reviewers and their audience

1 Identifying an Appropriate Epistemological Orientation

What philosophical traditions are amenable for guiding ethical decision - making in systematic reviews positioned along distinct epistemologies?

Practising informed subjectivity and reflexivity, all systematic reviewers must identify an appropriate epistemological orientation, such as post-positivist, interpretive, participatory and/or critical, that is aligned with their review purpose and research competence (Suri 2013 , 2018 ).

Deontological ethics is more relevant to post-positivist reviewers who focus on explaining, predicting or describing educational phenomena as generalisable laws expressed through relationships between measurable constructs and variables. The ethical focus of post-positivist systematic reviews tends to be on minimising threats to internal validity, external validity, internal reliability and external reliability of review findings. This is typically achieve by using a priori synthesis protocols, defining all key constructs conceptually and operationally in behavioural terms, employing exhaustive sampling strategies and employing variable oriented statistical analyses (Matt and Cook 2009 ; Petticrew and Roberts 2006 ).

Teleological ethics is more relevant to interpretive systematic reviews aiming to construct a holistic understanding of the educational phenomena that takes into account subjective experiences of diverse groups in varied contexts. Ethical decision making in interpretive systematic reviews lays an emphasis on authentically representing experiences and perceptions of diverse groups, especially those whose viewpoints tend to be less represented in the literature, to the extent that is permissible from the published literature. Maintaining a questioning gaze and a genuine engagement with diverse viewpoints, interpretive systematic reviewers focus on how individual accounts of a phenomenon reinforce, refute or augment each other (Eisenhart 1998 ; Noblit and Hare 1988 ).

Ethics of care is amenable to participatory systematic reviews that are designed to improve participant reviewers’ local world experientially through critical engagement with the relevant research. Ethical decision making in participatory systematic reviews promotes building teams of practitioners with the purpose of co-reviewing research that can transform their own practices and representations of their lived experiences. Participant co-reviewers exercise greater control throughout the review process to ensure that the review remains relevant to generating actionable knowledge for transforming their practice (Bassett and McGibbon 2013 ).

Foucauldian ethics is aligned with critical systematic reviews that contest dominant discourse by problematizing the prevalent metanarratives. Ethical decision making in critical systematic reviews focuses on problematizing ‘what we might take for granted’ (Schwandt 1998 , p. 410) in a field of research by raising ‘important questions about how narratives get constructed, what they mean, how they regulate particular forms of moral and social experiences, and how they presuppose and embody particular epistemological and political views of the world’ (Aronowitz and Giroux 1991 , pp. 80–81).

2 Identifying an Appropriate Purpose

What are key ethical considerations associated with identifying an appropriate purpose for a systematic review?

In this age of information explosion, systematic reviews require substantial resources. Guided by teleological ethics, systematic reviewers must conduct a cost-benefit analysis with a critical consideration of the purpose and scope of the review and its potential benefits to various groups of stakeholders.

If we consider the number of views or downloads as a proxy measure of impact, then we can gain useful insights by examining the teleological underpinnings of some of the highly read systematic reviews. Review of Educational Research (RER) tends to be regarded as the premiere educational research review journal internationally. Let us examine the scope and purpose of the three ‘most read’ articles in RER, as listed on 26 September 2018. Given the finite amount of resources available, an important question for educators is ‘what interventions are likely to be most effective, and under what circumstances?’. The power of feedback (Hattie and Timperley 2007 ), with 11463 views and downloads, is a conceptual analysis primarily drawing from the findings of published systematic reviews (largely meta-analyses) conducted to address this important question. In addition to effectively teaching what is deemed important, educators also have an important role of critiquing what is deemed important and why. The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas (Aronson and Laughter 2016 ), with 8958 views and downloads, is an example of such a systematic review. After highlighting the positive outcomes of culturally relevant education, the authors problematise the validity of standardised testing as an unbiased form of a desirable educational outcome for all. As education is essentially a social phenomenon, understanding how different stakeholders perceive various configurations of an educational intervention is critical. Making sense of assessment feedback in higher education (Evans 2013 ), with 5372 views and downloads, is an example of a systematic review that follows such a pursuit. Even though each of these reviews required significant resources and expertise, the cost is justified by the benefits evident from the high number of views and downloads of these articles. Each of these three reviews makes clear recommendations for practitioners and researchers by providing an overview, as well as interrogating, current practices.

All educational researchers are expected to prevent, or disclose and manage, ethical dilemmas arising from any real or perceived conflicts of interest (AERA 2011 ; BERA 2018 ). Systematic reviewers should also carefully scrutinise how their personal, professional or financial interests may influence the review findings in a specific direction. As systematic reviews require significant effort and resources, it is logical for systematic reviewers to bid for funding. Recognising the influence of systematic reviews in shaping perceptions of the wider community, many profit and not profit organisations have become open to funding systematic reviews. Before accepting funding for conducting a systematic review, educational researchers must carefully reflect on the following questions:

How does the agenda of the funding source intersect with the purpose of the review?

How might this potentially influence the review process and findings? How will this be managed ethically to ensure integrity of the systematic review findings?

In case of sponsored systematic reviews, it is important to consider at the outset how potential ethical issues will be managed if the interest of the funding agency conflicts with the interests of relatively less influential or less represented groups. Systematic reviews funded by a single agency with a vested interest in the findings are particularly vulnerable to ethical dilemmas arising from a conflict of interest (The Methods Coordinating Group of the Campbell Collaboration 2017 ). One approach could be to seek funding from a combination of agencies representing interests of different stakeholder groups. Exploring the option of crowdfunding is another option that systematic reviewers could use to represent the interests of marginalised groups whose interests are typically overlooked in the agenda of powerful funding agencies. In participatory synthesis, it is critical that the purpose of the systematic review evolves organically in response to the emerging needs of the practitioner participant reviewers.

3 Searching for Relevant Literature

What are key ethical considerations associated with developing an appropriate strategy for sampling and searching relevant primary research reports to include in a systematic review?

A number of researchers in education and health sciences have found that studies with certain methodological orientations or types of findings are more likely to be funded, published, cited and retrieved through common search channels (Petticrew and Roberts 2006 ). Serious ethical implications arise when systematic reviews of biased research are drawn upon to make policy decisions with an assumption that review findings are representative of the larger population. In designing an appropriate sampling and search strategy, systematic reviewers should carefully consider the impact of potential publication biases and search biases.

Funding bias, methodological bias, outcome bias and confirmatory bias are common forms of publication bias in educational research. For instance, studies with large sample-sizes are more likely to attract research funding, being submitted for publishing and getting published in reputable journals (Finfgeld-Connett and Johnson 2012 ). Research that reports significantly positive effects of an innovative intervention is more likely to be submitted for publishing by primary researchers and being accepted for publishing by journal editors (Dixon-Woods 2011 ; Rothstein et al. 2004 ). Rather than reporting on all the comparisons made in a study, often authors report on only those comparisons that are significant (Sutton 2009 ). As a result, the effectiveness of innovative educational interventions gets spuriously inflated in published literature. Often, when an educational intervention is piloted, additional resources are allocated for staff capacity building. However, in real life when the same intervention is rolled out at scale, the same degree of support is not provided to teachers whose practice is impacted by the intervention (Schoenfeld 2006 ).

Even after getting published, certain types of studies are more likely to be cited and retrieved through common search channels, such as key databases and professional networks (Petticrew and Roberts 2006 ). Systematic reviewers must carefully consider common forms of search biases, such as database bias, citation bias, availability bias, language bias, country bias, familiarity bias and multiple publication bias. The term ‘grey literature’ is sometimes used to refer to published and unpublished reports, such as government reports, that are not typically included in common research indexes and databases (Rothstein and Hopewell 2009 ). Several scholars recommend inclusion of grey literature to minimise potential impact of publication bias and search bias (Glass 2000 ) and to be inclusive of key policy documents and government reports (Godin et al. 2015 ). On the other hand, several other scholars argue that systematic reviewers should include only published research that has undergone the peer-review process of academic community to include only high-quality research and to minimise the potential impact of multiple publications based on the same dataset (La Paro and Pianta 2000 ).

With the ease of internet publishing and searching, the distinction between published and unpublished research has become blurred and the term grey literature has varied connotations. While most systematic reviews employ exhaustive sampling, in recent years there has been an increasing uptake of purposeful sampling in systematic reviews as evident from more than 1055 Google Scholar citations of a publication on this topic: Purposeful sampling in qualitative research synthesis (Suri 2011 ).

Aligned with the review’s epistemological and teleological positioning, all systematic reviewers must prudently design a sampling strategy and search plan, with complementary sources, that will give them access to most relevant primary research from a variety of high-quality sources that is inclusive of diverse viewpoints. They must ethically consider positioning of the research studies included in their sample in relation to the diverse contextual configurations and viewpoints commonly observed in practical settings.

4 Evaluating, Interpreting and Distilling Evidence from the Selected Research Reports

What are key ethical considerations associated with evaluating, interpreting and distilling evidence from the selected research reports in a systematic review?

Systematic reviewers typically do not have direct access to participants of primary research studies included in their review. The information they analyse is inevitably refracted through the subjective lens of authors of individual studies. It is important for systematic reviewers to critically reflect upon contextual position of the authors of primary research studies included in the review, their methodological and pedagogical orientations, assumptions they are making, and how they might have influenced the findings of the original studies. This becomes particularly important with global access to information where critical contextual information, that is common practice in a particular context but not necessarily in other contexts, may be taken-for-granted by the authors of the primary research report and hence may not get explicitly mentioned.

Systematic reviewers must ethically consider the quality and relevance of evidence reported in primary research reports with respect to the review purpose (Major and Savin-Baden 2010 ). In evaluating quality of evidence in individual reports, it is important to use the evaluation criteria that are commensurate with the epistemological positioning of the author of the study. Cook and Campbell’s ( 1979 ) constructs of internal validity, construct validity, external validity and statistical conclusion are amenable for evaluating postpositivist research. Valentine ( 2009 ) provides a comprehensive discussion of criteria suitable for evaluating research employing a wide range of postpositivist methods. Lincoln and Guba’s ( 1985 ) constructs of credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability are suitable for evaluating interpretive research. The Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD 2009 ) provides a useful comparison of common qualitative research appraisal tools in Chap.  6 of its open access guidelines for systematic reviews. Herons and Reason’s ( 1997 ) constructs of critical subjectivity, epistemic participation and political participation emphasising a congruence of experiential, presentational, propositional, and practical knowings are appropriate for evaluating participatory research studies. Validity of transgression, rather than correspondence, is suitable for evaluating critically oriented research reports using Lather’s constructs of ironic validity, paralogical validity, rhizomatic validity and voluptuous validity (Lather 1993 ). Rather than seeking perfect studies, systematic reviewers must ethically evaluate the extent to which findings reported in individual studies are grounded in the reported evidence.

While interpreting evidence from individual research reports, systematic reviewers should be cognisant of the quality criteria that are commensurate with the epistemological positioning of the original study. It is important to ethically reflect on plausible reasons for critical information that may be missing from individual reports and how might that influence the report findings (Dunkin 1996 ). Through purposefully informed selective inclusivity, systematic reviewers must distil information that is most relevant for addressing the synthesis purpose.

Often a two-stage approach is appropriate for evaluating, interpreting and distilling evidence from individual studies. For example, in their review that won the American Educational Research Association’s Review of the Year Award , Wideen et al. ( 1998 ) first evaluated individual studies using the criteria aligned with the methodological orientation of individual studies. Then, they distilled information that was most relevant for addressing their review purpose. In this phase, systematic reviewers must ethically pay particular attention to the quality criteria that are aligned with the overarching methodological orientation of their review, including some of the following criteria: reducing any potential biases, honouring representations of the participants of primary research studies, enriching praxis of participant reviewers or constructing a critically reflexive account of how certain discourses of an educational phenomenon have become more powerful than others. The overarching orientation and purpose of the systematic review should influence the extent to which evidence from individual primary research studies is drawn upon in a systematic review to shape the review findings (Major and Savin-Baden 2010 ; Suri 2018 ).

5 Constructing Connected Understandings

What are key ethical considerations associated with constructing connected understandings in a systematic review?

Through informed subjectivity and reflexivity, systematic reviewers must ethically consider how their own contextual positioning is influencing the connected understandings they are constructing from the distilled evidence. A variety of systematic techniques can be used to minimise unacknowledged biases, such as content analysis, statistical techniques, historical methods, visual displays, narrative methods, critical sensibilities and computer-based techniques. Common strategies for enhancing quality of all systematic reviews include ‘reflexivity; collaborative sense-making; eliciting feedback from key stakeholders; identifying disconfirming cases and exploring rival connections; sensitivity analyses and using multiple lenses’ (Suri 2014 , p. 144).

In addition, systematic reviewers must pay specific attention to ethical considerations particularly relevant to their review’s epistemological orientation. For instance, all post-positivist systematic reviewers should be wary of the following types of common errors: unexplained selectivity, not discriminating between evidence of varying quality, inaccurate coding of contextual factors, overstating claims made in the review beyond what can be justified by the evidence reported in primary studies and not paying adequate attention to the findings that are at odds with the generalisations made in the review (Dunkin 1996 ). Interpretive systematic reviews should focus on ensuring authentic representation of the viewpoints of the participants of the original studies as expressed through the interpretive lens of the authors of those studies. Rather than aiming for generalisability of the findings, they should aim at transferability by focusing on how the findings of individual studies intersect with their methodological and contextual configurations. Ethical considerations in participatory systematic reviews should pay attention to the extent to which practitioner co-reviewers feel empowered to drive the agenda of the review to address their own questions, change their own practices through the learning afforded by participating in the experience of the synthesis and have practitioner voices heard through the review (Suri 2014 ). Critically oriented systematic reviews should highlight how certain representations silence or privilege some discourses over the others and how they intersect with the interests of various stakeholder groups (Baker 1999 ; Lather 1999 ; Livingston 1999 ).

6 Communicating with an Audience

What are key ethical considerations associated with communicating findings of a systematic review to diverse audiences?

All educational researchers are expected to adhere to the highest standards of quality and rigour (AERA 2011 ; BERA 2018 ). The PRISMA-P group have identified a list of ‘Preferred reporting items for systematic review and meta-analysis protocols’ (Moher et al. 2015 ) which are useful guidelines to improve the transparency of the process in systematic reviews. Like all educational researchers, systematic reviewers also have an obligation to disclose any sources of funding and potential conflicts of interest that could have influenced their findings.

All researchers should reflexively engage with issues that may impact on individuals participating in the research as well as the wider groups whose interests are intended to be addressed through their research (Greenwood 2016 ; Pullman and Wang 2001 ; Tolich and Fitzgerald 2006 ). Systematic reviewers should also critically consider the potential impact of the review findings on the participants of original studies and the wider groups whose practices or experiences are likely to be impacted by the review findings. They should carefully articulate the domain of applicability of a review to deter the extrapolation of the review findings beyond their intended use. Contextual configurations of typical primary research studies included in the review must be comprehensively and succinctly described in a way that contextual configurations missing from their sample of studies become visible.

Like primary researchers, systematic reviewers should reflexively engage with a variety of ethical issues associated that potential conflicts of interest and issues of voice and representation. Systematic reviews are frequently read and cited in documents that influence educational policy and practice. Hence, ethical issues associated with what and how systematic reviews are produced and used have serious implications. Systematic reviewers must pay careful attention to how perspectives of authors and research participants of original studies are represented in a way that makes the missing perspectives visible. Domain of applicability of systematic reviews should be scrutinised to deter unintended extrapolation of review findings to contexts where they are not applicable. This necessitates that they systematically reflect upon how various publication biases and search biases may influence the synthesis findings. Throughout the review process, they must remain reflexive about how their own subjective positioning is influencing, and being influenced, by the review findings. Purposefully informed selective inclusivity should guide critical decisions in the review process. In communicating the insights gained through the review, they must ensure audience-appropriate transparency to maximise an ethical impact of the review findings.

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Suri, H. (2020). Ethical Considerations of Conducting Systematic Reviews in Educational Research. In: Zawacki-Richter, O., Kerres, M., Bedenlier, S., Bond, M., Buntins, K. (eds) Systematic Reviews in Educational Research. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-27602-7_3

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How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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ethics in writing literature review

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

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ethics in writing literature review

To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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Ethics in systematic reviews

Affiliation.

  • 1 Dental Faculty, Paul Sabatier University, Department of Epidemiology, Public Health, Prevention and Legislation, Toulouse University Hospital, Toulouse, France. [email protected]
  • PMID: 20952493
  • DOI: 10.1136/jme.2010.039941

Since its introduction by the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki, the place held by ethics in biomedical research has been continuously increasing in importance. The past 30 years have also seen exponential growth in the number of biomedical articles published. A systematic review of the literature is the scientific way of synthesising a plethora of information, by exhaustively searching out and objectively analysing the studies dealing with a given issue. However, the question of ethics in systematic reviews is rarely touched upon. This could lead to some drawbacks, as systematic reviews may contain studies with ethical insufficiencies, may be a possible way to publish unethical research and may also be prone to conflict of interest. Finally, informed consent given for an original study is not necessarily still valid at the systematic review level. There is no doubt that routine ethical assessment in systematic reviews would help to improve the ethical and methodological quality of studies in general. However, ethical issues change so much with time and location, and are so broad in scope and in context that it appears illusory to search for a universal, internationally accepted standard for ethical assessment in systematic reviews. Some simple suggestions could nevertheless be drawn from the present reflection and are discussed in the paper.

  • Biomedical Research / ethics*
  • Ethics, Research*
  • Informed Consent / ethics
  • Review Literature as Topic*

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To help you frame and write your literature review, think about these five c’s (Callahan, 2014):

  • Cite the material you have referred to and used to help you define the research problem that you will study.
  • Compare the various arguments, theories, methods, and findings expressed in the literature.For example, describe where the various researchers agree and where they disagree. Describe the similarities and dissimilarities in approaches to studying related research problems.
  • Contrast the various arguments, themes, methods, approaches, and controversies apparent and/or described in the literature. For example, describe what major areas are contested, controversial and/or still in debate.
  • Critique the literature. Describe which arguments you find more persuasive and explain why. Explain which approaches, findings, and methods seem most reliable, valid, appropriate, and/or most popular and why. Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what previous researchers have stated (e.g., asserts, demonstrates, argues, clarifies, etc.).
  • Connect the various research studies you reviewed. Describe how your work utilizes, draws upon, departs from, synthesizes, adds to or extends previous research studies.

Research Methods, Data Collection and Ethics Copyright © 2020 by Valerie Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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  • Research article
  • Open access
  • Published: 03 October 2016

Current state of ethics literature synthesis: a systematic review of reviews

  • Marcel Mertz 1 , 2 ,
  • Hannes Kahrass 1 &
  • Daniel Strech 1  

BMC Medicine volume  14 , Article number:  152 ( 2016 ) Cite this article

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Modern standards for evidence-based decision making in clinical care and public health still rely solely on eminence-based input when it comes to normative ethical considerations. Manuals for clinical guideline development or health technology assessment (HTA) do not explain how to search, analyze, and synthesize relevant normative information in a systematic and transparent manner. In the scientific literature, however, systematic or semi-systematic reviews of ethics literature already exist, and scholarly debate on their opportunities and limitations has recently bloomed.

A systematic review was performed of all existing systematic or semi-systematic reviews for normative ethics literature on medical topics. The study further assessed how these reviews report on their methods for search, selection, analysis, and synthesis of ethics literature.

We identified 84 reviews published between 1997 and 2015 in 65 different journals and demonstrated an increasing publication rate for this type of review. While most reviews reported on different aspects of search and selection methods, reporting was much less explicit for aspects of analysis and synthesis methods: 31 % did not fulfill any criteria related to the reporting of analysis methods; for example, only 25 % of the reviews reported the ethical approach needed to analyze and synthesize normative information.

Conclusions

While reviews of ethics literature are increasingly published, their reporting quality for analysis and synthesis of normative information should be improved. Guiding questions are: What was the applied ethical approach and technical procedure for identifying and extracting the relevant normative information units? What method and procedure was employed for synthesizing normative information? Experts and stakeholders from bioethics, HTA, guideline development, health care professionals, and patient organizations should work together to further develop this area of evidence-based health care.

Peer Review reports

Decision making in clinical care, public health, biomedical research, and other fields is strongly based on “external” knowledge (e.g., knowledge from clinical trials, health services research, or economic studies). Non-systematic retrieval and appraisal of external information, however, risks several types of bias and therefore diminishes the quality and accountability of decisions. Systematic reviews (SRs) aim to identify and process information from published material in a systematic, transparent, and reproducible manner. Their ultimate goals are to guarantee comprehensiveness and to reduce systematic errors (bias) in the identification and processing of relevant information, and they are therefore conducive to good evidence-based decision making.

Decision making in medicine, research, and health policy often explicitly or implicitly includes normative ethical considerations. For example, should trial participants be granted access to trial drugs after the end of the study? When health professionals and parents disagree about the appropriate course of medical treatment for a child, under what circumstances is the health professional ethically justified in overriding the parents’ wishes? What are ethical arguments for and against sham interventions? Is it allowable to store biological samples and DNA of minors for non-therapeutic research? When is public health surveillance ethical?

Since the rise of scholarly conduct in “applied” ethical analysis in the 1960s and the establishment of institutes for medical ethics, corresponding peer-reviewed journals, conferences, etc., it seems to be unquestioned that normative ethical input in medical and health policy decision making is a professional enterprise that can be more or less appropriate, of high or low quality, etc. However, it is also known that scholars can come to contrasting but equally well-argued conclusions on what is normatively right or wrong, or more or less appropriate [ 1 – 3 ].

Against this background it is surprising that modern standards for evidence-based decision making in clinical care and public health still rely on eminence-based input alone regarding normative ethical information, even though review methodology has been increasingly used in various disciplines and fields.

Scientific communities such as the Cochrane Collaboration, the Campbell Collaboration, and institutions such as the Institute of Medicine (IOM) or the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provide detailed guidance for review methodologies in different fields [ 4 – 6 ]. While these guidelines cover qualitative as well as quantitative research, they do not explicitly mention whether or how current methodological standards apply to normative ethical literature (“normative literature” for short). Similarly, manuals for evidence-based guideline development do not explain how to include ethical issues in a systematic and transparent manner [ 7 ]. Recent methodological debate demonstrated the need of knowledge synthesis methods that are specified for particular types of information [ 8 ]. But here again, normative ethical information was not acknowledged explicitly.

The ethics literature includes empirical and normative studies on morally challenging topics. Normative literature aims to evaluate or prescribe policies, (moral) reasons, and decisions for or against particular (moral) judgements and policies. Most often, this type of literature can also be described as “argument-based” or “reason-based” literature [ 9 , 10 ]. The “source material” of ethics research includes (ethical) theory, intuitions, common sense, and scientifically produced empirical data.

Despite the neglect of reviews on normative literature by manuals for the development of clinical guidelines and health technology assessment (HTA), and despite any explicit guidance on methodological particularities, such reviews of normative literature already exist, and scholarly debate on their opportunities and limitations has recently bloomed [ 10 – 13 ].

This study aimed to identify trends in the quantity of published systematic and semi-systematic reviews of normative ethical or “mixed” (empirical and normative ethical) literature, the academic affiliations of corresponding authors, and other review characteristics. The study further particularly assessed how these reviews report on their methods for (1) search, (2) selection, (3) analysis, and (4) synthesis of ethics literature.

The review was based on two PubMed searches (15 April 2015, 27 April 2015), with additional searches in PhilPapers (29 April 2015) and Google Scholar (30 April 2015). For PubMed , two search strings were used. The first one was composed for screening purposes, and the second one used a refined search string. See Table  1 and the flowchart in Fig.  1 .

Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses (PRISMA) flowchart

It proved to be impossible to search directly and solely for reviews of normative literature, as such a distinction is not established or standardized yet in databases (e.g., no standardized key words refer to this kind of review). Therefore, the search had to be intentionally broad in order to capture any review done related to topics of medical ethics or bioethics, even if this included reviews that solely analyzed and synthesized empirical literature.

We have not used a language restriction for the search in order to assess the overall amount of identifiable reviews.

For the purpose of this meta-review on a still little-standardized review area we decided to apply rather sensitive and not too restrictive selection criteria. We selected all reviews that explicitly or implicitly indicated their objective to analyze and present ethics literature in a systematic manner. To be included, reviews had to be explicitly concerned with normative ethical considerations of medical topics; e.g., they had to pose an ethical question or determine ethical challenges. It was not deemed sufficient for the results of a review to be able to be regarded as “ethically relevant.” Furthermore, reviews should have an identifiable description of at least some methodological elements describing a reproducible literature search (e.g., search terms, databases used, or inclusion/exclusion criteria). See Table  2 . We labeled such reviews as semi-systematic reviews . Only those reviews that explicitly or implicitly reported on search, selection, analysis, and synthesis were labeled as (full) systematic reviews . Finally, we only included reviews written in English, German, or French.

Articles were selected first according to their title or abstract, and later by full text screening. See Table  2 . All reviews for empirical, normative, and “mixed” literature were included at this stage. The in-depth analysis and corresponding data presented in this paper focused on the normative and mixed literature, because methodological particularities, especially concerning analysis and synthesis, have been much less widely discussed for normative and conceptual literature than for empirical research.

The selection was initially done by one researcher (MM). Then, a second researcher (HK) checked all the selection results (inclusion and exclusion) for consistency with the selection criteria. Discrepancies were discussed and successfully overcome via consensus-seeking discussions.

Because we aimed to assess the current state of the art of reviews of normative ethical literature, we did not exclude reviews that did not fulfill all PRISMA criteria. Depicting the state of art must also include reviews of “relatively bad” reporting quality. Also, it is possible that certain reviews demonstrate a fair reporting of analysis and synthesis of normative information but are not able to fulfill some basic PRISMA criteria. Excluding such reviews would deprive our review of important insights about how reviews of normative information are analyzing and synthesizing information. Nevertheless, we present slightly adapted PRISMA ratings as part of our results.

Apart from the reporting quality, it would also be impossible to assess the methodological quality of the included reviews because of the lack of specific quality assessment tools for reviews of normative ethics literature.

We determined the academic fields of the journals that published included reviews based on how they were classified by the Journal Citation Reports ( JCR ) Science Edition 2014 and JCR Social Science Edition 2014 . Where no entry was available, the journal was categorized as “not found”.

We further categorized the affiliation of all authors. (Table  4 lists the different categories used.) For this purpose, we considered the affiliation of all first authors. We took the lowest identifiable organizational unit if several organizational units/levels were mentioned. If the last author had a differing affiliation, this affiliation was also considered. Finally, if additional authors of a review had further differing affiliations, these were also considered. Therefore, the amount of authors considered regarding affiliations is not equal to the total amount of authors.

The method of qualitative content analysis (QCA) [ 14 , 15 ] was employed to analyze the literature in detail, i.e., to identify and categorize the methods used for search, selection, analysis, and synthesis, and the information given about methodology (e.g., stating aims, discussing limitations, providing a flowchart). In applying this method, we used a combined deductive and inductive strategy for building up categories [ 14 ]. This was done iteratively by two researchers (MM, HK).

The qualitatively analyzed content of the reviews was synthesized into descriptive statistics assessing how often the description of methods corresponded to established (and slightly adapted) criteria of the PRISMA guideline [ 16 ] (See Table  6 ).

From the initially identified 1393 references we finally included 160 reviews covering three types of ethics reviews: (1) empirical ethics ( n  = 76), (2) normative ethics ( n  = 51), and (3) mixed literature ( n  = 33). For the above-described reasons we further excluded the 76 reviews of empirical ethics literature from the in-depth analysis. See the flowchart in Fig.  1 . The following results therefore represent the remaining 84 reviews of normative or mixed literature. Additional file 1 : Tables S1–S3 present all references for the three types of ethics reviews.

Languages, publication dates, and self-labeling

Of all 84 reviews, 98 % ( n  = 82) were in English, one in French, and one in German. The earliest reviews were published in 1997. Of the 84 reviews, 82 % were published in the last ten years. See Fig.  2 . In total, 31 (37 %) labeled themselves as “systematic review” or used the term “systematic” in labelings such as “systematic literature review” or “systematic survey.”

Publication dates of the reviews

Journals: academic fields and titles

The academic fields most prominent were Nursing ( n  = 17, 15 %), Medical Ethics and Ethics ( n  = 10 + 2 = 12, 11 %), Public, Environmental, and Occupational Health ( n  = 8, 7 %), and Genetics and Heredity ( n  = 8, 7 %). See Table  3 . Note that a journal can be classified in two or more fields.

The journal that published the most reviews was Nursing Ethics ( n  = 7, 8 %), followed by Journal of Medical Ethics ( n  = 4, 5 %), BMC Medical Ethics ( n  = 4, 5 %), Journal of Advanced Nursing ( n  = 4, 5 %), and European Journal of Human Genetics ( n  = 4, 5 %). However, roughly 70 % ( n  = 59) of all finally included reviews ( n  = 84) were found in journals that only appeared once in our review. See Table  3 .

Authors: number, country of origin, and affiliations

The greatest number of reviews were authored by two authors ( n  = 26, 31 %), followed by three ( n  = 18, 21 %) and four authors ( n  = 16, 19 %) with an arithmetic mean of 3.45. See Table  4 .

Twenty reviews (24 %) were written by authors from the USA, 10 (12 %) from the UK, 10 (12 %) from Belgium, 8 (10 %) from Germany, and 6 (8 %) from the Netherlands. The remaining 30 reviews were written by authors from 18 other countries. See Table  4 .

We analyzed the affiliation of 205 authors with different affiliations. The greatest number, namely 60 (30 %), were affiliated to Bioethics institutions, 51 (25 %) to institutions related to medicine, 23 (11 %) to Nursing and Allied Health Practitioners (AHP)-related institutions, 18 (9 %) to Health Sciences institutions, and 7 (3 %) were affiliated to Philosophy and the Humanities. See Table  4 .

Standards/guidelines and limitations

Twenty (24 %) of the 84 reviews stated that they used an established/published review methodology (see Table  5 ). Only the approach of McCullough et al. and Garrard were mentioned more than once ( n  = 9, 45 %, n = 2, 10 %). Ten reviews (12 %) stated that they took guidance from established reporting standards or guidelines (whether general or specific to SRs). The only standard mentioned more than once was PRISMA, with 8 entries. Thirty-three reviews (39 %) reported on limitations.

Reported methods for search, selection, analysis, and synthesis

Table  6 presents detailed data on how often the reviews were transparent about methodological criteria for search, selection, analysis, and synthesis. Table  6 also highlights how these criteria match with reporting items mentioned in PRISMA. Most reviews reported, for example, on what databases (93 %), search terms (91 %), or inclusion/exclusion criteria (81 %) they used. Overall, only 1 % and 8 % did not fulfill any criteria related to search and selection, respectively. However, only a minority reported on other essential details such as the procedure for information extraction (37 %) and information synthesis (18 %). In fact, 31 % did not fulfill any criteria related to the reporting of analysis methods. For example, only 25 % of the reviews reported the ethical approach needed to analyze and synthesize normative information.

A comprehensive qualitative analysis and comparison of all applied methods for search, selection, analysis, and synthesis is beyond the scope of this paper and is to be published elsewhere. The applied methods for search and selection of relevant normative literature are largely comparable with standard “systematic review” methodology. Methods for analysis and synthesis of normative information, however, are of substantial differences. In the following, therefore, we highlight some core findings with regard to the reported analysis and synthesis.

Regarding extraction and analysis of normative information, the most sought types of information were ethical issues, topics, or dilemmas ( n  = 27), arguments or reasons ( n  = 14), and ethical principles, values, or norms ( n  = 13) (multiple responses possible). Among the procedures for extracting information we broadly distinguished between “coding and categorizing” ( n  = 9), “collecting” ( n  = 7), or “close reading” ( n  = 6). See Table  7 for more detailed explanations and case examples.

Regarding synthesis, we could broadly distinguish between qualitative methods ( n  = 44), quantitative methods ( n  = 5), and narrative/hermeneutical methods ( n  = 3). In most cases, qualitative analyses aimed to develop overarching normative issues, reasons, or principles that allowed summarizing the more detailed normative information. To do this, a variety of deductively and inductively developed category systems with main and subcategories were employed. Quantitative analyses aimed, for example, to quantify the distribution of qualitatively assessed topics. See Table  8 for more detailed explanations and case examples.

Thirty-eight (45 %) of the included reviews ( n  = 84) reported on at least some aspects of all four domains of the methodology (search, selection, analysis, and synthesis).

Most reviews reported on the essential elements for search and selection methods (e.g., databases, search terms, inclusion/exclusion) except for flowcharts (reported by only 29 %). However, reporting was much less explicit for analysis and synthesis methods. Almost one third of all reviews did not report on any essential element of the analysis methods (what information to extract and how). For example, only 25 % of reviews on normative literature reported on the kind of ethical approach/theory needed to identify relevant normative information. Only 45 % of reviews reported on all methods and could therefore be labeled as (full) systematic reviews, implying that most reviews we found are rather semi-systematic. Somehow in line with the aforementioned neglect of important method reporting is the fact that only 39 % of reviews discussed their limitations.

A limitation of our review is that we only searched the databases PubMed, PhilPapers, and Google Scholar . We restricted our search to these three databases mainly because of experiences from former systematic reviews of normative information demonstrating that most of the literature can be found in PubMed and Google Scholar , and that searching other ethics-specific databases did not add a substantial proportion of references [ 17 ]. In our review, 86 % of all included reviews were found by PubMed searches alone. Furthermore, all languages other than English, German, or French were excluded, but this only resulted in the exclusion of three reviews.

Our results demonstrate that most elements of searching and selecting normative literature reflect the widely accepted PRISMA recommendations. However, appropriate elements for the analysis and synthesis of normative literature are less standardized. Further meta-research and conceptual analysis are needed to inform the development of minimal standards for the analysis and synthesis of normative literature. The quality assessment of normative literature might be one of the most controversial topics in this regard [ 10 ]. The required degree of transparency for all steps of information processing in analyzing and synthesizing normative information will be another controversial topic, because strong requirements in this regard might result in excessive workloads for review authors [ 18 ].

Nevertheless, our review demonstrates that analysis and synthesis methods can be described and justified with regard to the specific review objectives. This demands that the following elements for analysis and synthesis should be clarified prior to each review of normative information and should be reported with the dissemination of results: (1) normative information unit (e.g., ethical issues, ethical reasons, ethical norms, etc.), (2) ethical approach (e.g., a specific ethical theory) and the technical procedure used to identify and extract the relevant normative information units, (3) method for synthesizing normative information (e.g., category building). See Tables  7 and 8 . Researchers should also be aware that these three steps are interrelated; i.e., that using a specific ethical approach will lead to a specific way of identifying normative information units, or, vice versa, that the set of normative information units identified will depend on the ethical approach (e.g., a deontological ethical theory would identify some issues as “ethical issues,” which a consequentialist ethical theory would not).

Thus, future clarification is also needed for the personal competencies and skills necessary to realize a valid and informative review of normative information. Based on our personal experiences with reviews of normative information, it is also important to clarify the expectations and needs of the intended readership. In particular, the choice of synthesis methods for normative information might differ substantially if the review group aims to inform either expert discourse in bioethics or policy decision making in guideline or HTA development. Stakeholder orientation, therefore, is another issue that should be clarified prior to conducting ethics reviews.

This is the first study, to our knowledge, to analyze the state of systematic and semi-systematic reviews of normative literature on medical topics. We identified 84 reviews published between 1997 and 2015 in 65 different journals and demonstrated an increasing publication rate for this type of review. The reference lists for all included reviews (Additional file  1 : Tables S1–S3) provide a rich source for those interested in medical ethics and those wanting to conduct (systematic) reviews of normative literature themselves.

Further research as well as interdisciplinary discussion and consent are needed to define detailed best practice recommendations for the respective steps of a review of normative information. Experts from different fields such as bioethics, HTA and guideline development, as well as health care professionals and patient representatives, should work together to further develop the methodology of (systematic) reviews of normative ethical information to support evidence-based health care.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank our student assistant Nadine Komeinda for her help in retrieving and electronically archiving the full text versions of the articles we found, and our student assistant Christopher Schürmann for his help in analyzing review characteristics.

Authors’ contributions

MM wrote the main draft of the paper (all sections), devised search algorithms and conducted the search, worked out most of the methods employed, and revised and finalized the manuscript. HK assisted in devising the search algorithms, cross-checked selection, was one of two researchers analyzing and synthesizing the material, and contributed to writing the manuscript. DS originated the idea of conducting a systematic review about reviews of normative ethical literature on medical topics, gave input to the review design, acted as third (“control”) researcher in the analysis procedure, and revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Competing interests

Financial competing interests: There are none to declare. Non-financial competing interests: In three reviews finally included in this review DS was one of the authors. In one review MM and HK were co-authors.

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Additional file 1: table s1..

Reviews (English/German/French): empirical literature. Table S2 : Reviews (English/German/French): normative literature. Table S3 : Reviews (English/German/French): mixed literature. (DOCX 56 kb)

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Mertz, M., Kahrass, H. & Strech, D. Current state of ethics literature synthesis: a systematic review of reviews. BMC Med 14 , 152 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-016-0688-1

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Ethical considerations in scientific writing

Jane d. carver.

Department of Pediatrics, University of South Florida, and Clinical and Translational Science Institute (USF-CTSI), Tampa, Florida, USA

Patricia J. Emmanuel

Ritu parchure.

1 Prayas, Pune, India

INTRODUCTION

Fostering scientific advancement requires strict adherence to ethical guidelines for research and scientific writing. Several professional organizations have policies to address the ethics associated with scientific writing and publishing, including the Committee on Publication Ethics and the International Council of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE); the majority of medical journals follow the ICMJE's Uniform Guidelines. We discuss two issues related to ethics in scientific writing: Plagiarism and authorship. Plagiarism, the most common form of scientific misconduct, is defined as the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit. While plagiarism is often intentional, it may be unintentional due to confusion regarding the definition of plagiarism and how to avoid it. Other forms of plagiarism include self-plagiarism, whereby authors copy large parts of one of their previous manuscripts word-for-word. Duplicate publication is a form of plagiarism that occurs when an author submits a previously-published work as if it were original. An increasing number of manuscripts are retracted each year due to duplicate publication. The incidence of plagiarism is of particular concern among international trainees in the U.S. and in countries where English is not the primary language, and is often due to issues related to language barriers. The major issues related to authorship include determination of author responsibilities and author order. Awarding authorship to people who have not made sufficient contributions conveys benefit to them inappropriately and it reduces benefit to those who actually contributed to the work, while denying authorship to deserving contributors is a widespread violation of scientific integrity.

The benefits of research can only be realized if results of investigations are published in the literature for others to replicate and expand upon. Fostering scientific advancement requires strict adherence to ethical guidelines for research and scientific writing. Here, we discuss two issues related to ethics in scientific writing: plagiarism and authorship. Violations of the ethical principles associated with these issues are considered as scientific misconduct. However, authors and academic institutions often have difficulty in defining and addressing these complex issues. Fortunately, several professional organizations have developed policies to address these and other issues associated with the ethics of scientific writing. These policies can be readily adopted – and adapted – by academic institutions, but the process still requires that the policies be consistently adhered to. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)-[ 1 ] defines best practice in the ethics of scholarly publication. The COPE's Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guidelines for Journal Editors, ascribed to by many major journals, defines ethical violations that involve publication issues, and provides guidelines for editors and publishers in dealing with these violations. The International Council of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE)[ 2 ] developed the uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals. The majority of medical journals follow the uniform guidelines, which provide guidance on many issues including plagiarism and authorship standards. The U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI)[ 3 ] oversees and directs public health research in the U.S. The ORI develops policies and procedures related to detecting, investigating and preventing research misconduct, and it implements programs to promote research integrity.

While preparing his dissertation, a graduate student used a colleague's previously-submitted paper to compose much of the introduction and background sections. The professor recognized the duplication and questioned the student. The student argued that the methods, results and discussion section are all original, and the background is mostly common knowledge. He admitted to using the colleague's paper but felt that he had changed enough words, and that citation wasn′t necessary because the information was common knowledge.

The U.S. Office of Science and Technology defines plagiarism as “the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposal and manuscripts.”[ 4 ] Although plagiarism is considered as a form of scientific misconduct, it is often unintentional. Inexperienced writers and trainees may not be aware of the importance of strict adherence to plagiarism guidelines, they may be confused by vague and conflicting definitions of plagiarism, faculty may assume that trainees understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it, and authors often have difficulty in paraphrasing complex ideas or methods.[ 5 , 6 ] Further complicating the issue is that institutions in some countries may not require strict adherence to plagiarism guidelines.

Plagiarism, the most common form of scientific misconduct, occurs quite often among students and faculty. Studies have documented persistent plagiarism among medical students, and have found that explicit warnings may not be enough to deter students from engaging in plagiarism.[ 7 ] Faculty at research institutions may succumb to plagiarism due to the tremendous pressure to publish their work, which is essential to effectively compete for grant money and to advance their careers.

It has been noted that the incidence of plagiarism is higher among international versus domestic trainees in the U.S. This difference is mainly attributed to differing perspectives of international students toward plagiarism, the lack of formal policies on research misconduct at their home institutions, and language barriers causing difficulties in writing English.[ 6 ] Plagiarism in countries where English is not the primary language is also a significant concern.[ 7 ] English is often the preferred language to communicate scientific ideas and results, and there is increasing pressure to publish papers in reputable English-language journals. However, many faculty and trainees are not skilled in expressing complex ideas in English. This language barrier, along with the ease of internet searches and the ability to “cut and paste” verbiage from Web pages, contribute to the increasing incidence of plagiarism. In all academic settings, the increasing pressure to publish as an important step in advancing careers further contributes to the increasing incidence of plagiarism. The Indian government, in particular, has expressed concern about the country's low research output, and its revised rules for academic promotion link the number of published papers to promotions.[ 8 ] If institutions and faculty are to be competitive in the global research arena, better policies to address research misconduct need to be developed, and training in the skill of scientific writing needs to be recognized as a critically important priority.

Several different forms of plagiarism encountered in scientific writing

Intentional plagiarism, in which one knowingly lifts text directly from other authors without giving appropriate credit, is the most common form of plagiarism. Fisher and Zigmond[ 5 ] believe the common factors that underlie intentional plagiarism are an individual's strong desire to succeed, coupled with a lack of time and lack of interest in learning how to write properly. As in the case study above, some authors may view “common knowledge” in their field quite broadly. However, even basic background information needs to be properly cited, both to give credit to the original author(s) and to aid readers in finding the information provided. When compiling background and introduction sections, it can be easy to lift phrases directly from notes taken from primary sources. However, it is important to remember that taking text directly from a source requires proper citation and the use of quotation marks when word-for-word text is cited.

Self-plagiarism

Also known as text recycling, is another common form of plagiarism. In self-plagiarism, the author copies large parts of one of his or her previous papers word-for-word. This form of plagiarism can be difficult to define, since there is no consensus on how many words of copied text constitute self-plagiarism. Although the ethical breach associated with self-plagiarism is generally less severe than with intentional plagiarism, it is still considered as scientific misconduct. Copying sections of previously published text, for example the methods section of a research paper, is occasionally legitimate. However, copying large parts of an original paper is considered as self-plagiarism, and submitting it for publication is considered as duplicate publication, as discussed below.[ 9 ]

Duplicate publication is a form of plagiarism that occurs when an author submits for publication a previously-published work as if it were original. Submitting previously published work is considered as plagiarism and a form of scientific misconduct, unless the author makes a clear statement that the article is being intentionally republished in part or in whole. Duplicate submission of manuscripts wastes the time of the editor and reviewers. Worse yet, duplicate publication of research distorts the scientific record, since it implies that more than one study has independently achieved the reported results. Readers of published manuscripts have a right to expect that what they read is original content, and they should not be misled into believing a report is original when it is a duplication of the author's own work or that of others.[ 10 ] At the time of submission, most journals require that authors make a statement about any previous submissions that were similar or that were based on the reported results. Some forms of duplicate publication are acceptable, such as clinical trial updates and conference proceedings. According to the ICME guidelines,[ 2 ] submitted manuscripts that are duplicates should be promptly rejected. If the editor is not made aware of the violation prior to publication, a notice of duplicate publication may be published with or without the author's explanation or approval.

The number of published manuscripts that are retracted each year is increasing, and plagiarism is making a significant contribution to this increase. Steen[ 11 ] investigated the reasons for retraction of 742 English language research papers from PubMed between 2000 and 2010. Sixteen percent of papers were retracted due to duplicate publication and 14% were retracted due to plagiarism. Errami and Garner[ 10 ] also searched the published biomedical literature and reported tens of thousands of highly similar articles, and that the number is growing. In their commentary in Nature, the authors state that the “three major sins of modern publishing” are duplication, co-submission and plagiarism.

Academic institutions are increasingly using plagiarism detection software to detect plagiarism in documents submitted by students. Likewise, journals use software tools to detect plagiarism and duplicate publications among submitted manuscripts. Plagiarism detection software compares the text of manuscripts with a database of the existing scholarly literature. The Lancet, which recently adopted the use of plagiarism detection software,[ 12 ] screens all submitted papers before sending them for peer review. If there is substantial overlap with previously published material, the editors may ask authors to put text in quotation marks, rewrite passages, or they may reject the manuscript and contact the head of the author's institution.

Table 1 lists the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity's “Guidelines for Avoiding Plagiarism”. A good rule-of-thumb to follow is to always provide a citation if there is any question about the appropriateness of doing so. Our institution provides an on-line tutorial to assist faculty and students in differentiating plagiarism from paraphrasing,[ 13 ] and the student catalog provides specific definitions for plagiarism, along with punishment guidelines.[ 14 ] Most published guidelines for avoiding, detecting and dealing with plagiarism emphasize that a multi-faceted approach should be used to ensure that all persons understand the meaning of and consequences of plagiarism.[ 6 , 7 , 15 ]

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity<s “Guidelines for Avoiding Plagiarism”.[ 3 ]

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A junior investigator prepared a case series and review article based on a group of interesting patients he has cared for. He worked with one student and a colleague to review the cases and prepare the manuscript, and they were both listed as authors on the paper. When the manuscript was close to completion, the investigator asked his senior mentor to review the manuscript. The mentor returned the paper with several edits and comments, and added his name as the senior author on the paper.

Authorship issues are often contentious and can affect personal and professional relationships. The major issues related to authorship include determination of author responsibilities and author order. There is tremendous pressure among academicians to be listed on as many publications as possible, and students in many graduate programs are required to publish one or more first-authored papers. However, awarding authorship to people who have not made sufficient contributions conveys benefit to them inappropriately, and it reduces the benefit to those who actually contributed to the work.[ 16 ]

Several forms of authorship abuse described by Kevin Strange[ 16 ]

  • Coercion authorship, where intimidation is used to gain authorship. This type of authorship can occur when a senior person pressures a more junior person or a student to include their name on a paper to which they have not contributed enough to qualify for authorship;
  • Honorary, guest or gift authorship that is awarded to acknowledge friendship, to gain favor, and/or to give the paper a greater sense of legitimacy. It is still quite common for authors to add well-known senior investigators as authors to their papers, even though the senior person may not have made significant contributions to the paper;
  • Mutual support authorship, whereby two or more investigators place their names on each other's papers to enhance their perceived productivity;
  • Ghost authorship, where papers are written by people who are not included as authors or are not acknowledged. Ghost authorship is quite common in the pharmaceutical industry, which often hires professional writers.
  • Denial of authorship, where a work is published without providing authorship or acknowledgement to people who made substantial contributions to the work.

In the case described above, the senior mentor may expect to be added to the junior faculty member's paper because he feels that his position of authority qualifies him for authorship, and/or because he feels that he substantially contributed to the content through his edits and comments. However, even if he did make substantive changes and suggestions, the junior faculty member should not be made to feel coerced into adding the senior mentor as an author. The junior investigator should be able to confidently refer to published guidelines of authorship to determine if the senior mentor qualifies for authorship – and he should have the support of his institution in making this determination.

An often overlooked aspect of authorship is that the agreement implies support for the findings of the study, and a willingness to take public responsibility for the paper. Dr. Strange[ 16 ] describes several high-profile cases in which investigators inappropriately accepted authorship on papers. When serious charges of scientific misconduct were filed against the authors, the inappropriate authors tried to distance themselves from the study – after implicitly supporting the findings by accepting authorship. These cases illustrate the importance of not accepting authorship inappropriately, and of accepting the responsibility that accompanies authorship.

As with plagiarism, many institutions and professional organizations have established formal authorship guidelines. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity recommends that all research institutions, journals and scientific societies establish and make public their authorship policies.[ 3 ] The ICMJE's standards for authorship have been revised several times, have been adopted by hundreds of journals, and are the most widely accepted[ 2 ] [ Table 2 ]. In general, the ICMJE recommends that authorship be reserved for those who made substantive intellectual contributions to a published study.

Abbreviated version of the International Medical Journal Editors’ “Guidelines for Authorship”.[ 2 ]

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Another authorship issue that can be problematic is authorship order. Generally speaking, the first and last author positions are considered as the most desirable. The first author, or “primary author”, is the person who conducted most of the work described in the paper, and is usually the person who drafted the manuscript. The “senior author” is usually the last person named, and is generally the person who directed or oversaw the project. Senior authors are often expected to take responsibility for the project as a whole. The names of “contributing authors’” appear between the primary and senior authors, and the order should reflect their relative contribution to the work.[ 16 ] The importance of these designations to medical school promotion committees, and clarification of these designations in published manuscripts have been described.[ 17 ] Increasingly, journals require that the role(s) of each listed author be specified at the time of submission, and many journals publish this information with the article.

CONCLUSIONS

Ethical lapses in writing and publishing are all too common. The cases presented illustrate a very small sample of the complex issues authors may face. We encourage institutions to adopt formal policies related to scientific misconduct – including plagiarism and authorship. Numerous established policies are available that can be adopted – or adapted – to meet the needs of individual institutions. Institutions should make their policies related to plagiarism readily available to both students and faculty, and they should provide clear guidelines to help students and faculty recognize and avoid plagiarism. Defining roles on projects and establishing authorship order on manuscripts before the writing begins – or even before the project begins – can often circumvent misunderstandings related to authorship. Authors should also clarify authorship expectations when they ask colleagues to review a working manuscript, and when they invite a colleague to participate on a project. Team science can help to foster ethical publishing if the team establishes guiding principles of authorship and publishing, and holds each member accountable to these principles.

Source of Support: Nil.

Conflict of Interest: None declared.

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  • Published: 24 May 2020

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

  • William Bruno   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-9429-6874 1 &
  • Rohini J. Haar 2  

Conflict and Health volume  14 , Article number:  27 ( 2020 ) Cite this article

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Research around humanitarian crises, aid delivery, and the impact of these crises on health and well-being has expanded dramatically. Ethical issues around these topics have recently received more attention. We conducted a systematic literature review to synthesize the lessons learned regarding the ethics of research in humanitarian crises.

We conducted a systematic review using the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analysis (PRISMA) guidelines to identify articles regarding the ethics of research in humanitarian contexts between January 1, 1997 and September 1, 2019. We analyzed the articles to extract key themes and develop an agenda for future research.

We identified 52 articles that matched our inclusion criteria. We categorized the article data into five categories of analysis: 32 were expert statements, 18 were case studies, 11 contained original research, eight were literature reviews and three were book chapters. All included articles were published in English. Using a step-wise qualitative analysis, we identified 10 major themes that encompassed these concepts and points. These major themes were: ethics review process (21 articles, [40.38%]); community engagement (15 articles [28.85%]); the dual imperative , or necessity that research be both academically sound and policy driven, clinical trials in the humanitarian setting (13 articles for each, [25.0%)]; informed consent (10 articles [19.23%]); cultural considerations (6 articles, [11.54%]); risks to researchers (5 articles, [9.62%]); child participation (4 articles [7.69%]); and finally mental health , and data ownership (2 articles for each [3.85%]).

Conclusions

Interest in the ethics of studying humanitarian crises has been dramatically increasing in recent years. While key concepts within all research settings such as beneficence, justice and respect for persons are crucially relevant, there are considerations unique to the humanitarian context. The particular vulnerabilities of conflict-affected populations, the contextual challenges of working in humanitarian settings, and the need for ensuring strong community engagement at all levels make this area of research particularly challenging. Humanitarian crises are prevalent throughout the globe, and studying them with the utmost ethical forethought is critical to maintaining sound research principles and ethical standards.

Defined as both natural and man-made disasters, along with both acute and chronic conflicts, humanitarian crises threaten the lives and livelihoods of over 131 million people in the world today [ 1 ]. With more than 68.5 million people currently displaced, 25.4 million of whom are refugees outside their country of origin, the global community is witnessing urgent humanitarian issues that are crossing borders and impacting even those states and communities once thought immune [ 2 , 3 ]. Humanitarian aid is the impartial, independent and neutral delivery of services to populations in immediate danger [ 4 ]. Since the end of World War II, the humanitarian aid sector (in the form of health services, water and sanitation services, nutritional goods and security) has grown tremendously [ 5 ].

With expansion in humanitarian aid delivery and the deepening awareness that humanitarian crises can destroy health systems and have long-term impacts on public health, ensuring that the services provided are effective and acceptable is crucial. Following several highly publicized failures of the humanitarian community, veteran humanitarians from across the spectrum of governmental and non-governmental organizations have attempted to improve humanitarian response [ 6 ]. Initiatives such as the Sphere Project and others aimed to create minimum standards and evidence-based protocols for the delivery of five core components of humanitarian response—water supply and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelter and site planning and health services [ 7 ]. Over the past several decades, a key component of the assessment process has been conducting formal monitoring, evaluation and research on humanitarian aid delivery. Studies ranging from randomized control trials to population surveys and qualitative assessments evaluating the full spectrum of humanitarian aid delivery have burgeoned [ 8 ].

Parallel to the increase in professionalization of humanitarian aid, the public health community has been grappling with how to ensure that research on vulnerable populations is conducted ethically and with a focus on the rights and best interests of the community. Spurred by a backlash to unchecked human experimentation carried out through the twentieth century during World War II and the decades afterwards, there is more recognition of the critical importance of considering research ethics, particularly when studying vulnerable populations [ 9 ].

Few populations are as vulnerable to the potential adverse ethical challenges of research as those experiencing a humanitarian crisis [ 10 ]. Faced with weak government protections, disrupted health systems, insecure living conditions, and unreliable food and unsafe water, disaster-affected populations can be particularly at risk of inadequate consent processes and coercion. Furthermore, humanitarian emergencies require timely evaluation and management, making traditional ethics review—typically a protracted process—impractical [ 11 , 12 , 13 ]. These unique challenges, along with underdeveloped oversight and regulatory bodies of host countries and international mechanisms, make ethics considerations a crucial but difficult task in humanitarian research [ 14 , 15 ].

Despite increasing interest and an expanding literature base, there has been limited formal synthesis of the existing published data around the ethical issues of research in the humanitarian setting. We conducted a systematic review to (1) identify ethical issues surrounding research in humanitarian settings, (2) assess how these issues are managed in these unique circumstances and (3) develop an agenda for major issues that will require further discourse.

We conducted a systematic review using the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analysis (PRISMA) guidelines [ 16 ]. The PRISMA checklist has been provided as Supplementary Table  1 . Articles relevant to research ethics in the humanitarian setting were identified and analyzed. We chose to limit the search to articles published after January 1, 1997, when the initiation of the Sphere project marked a paradigm shift in how humanitarian aid was envisioned and carried out. This allows for review of nearly 25 years of literature, therefore spanning a wide swath of potential ethical research. We used the Sphere project dates because it included explicit language highlighting the need for evidence-based practices, which would require significant augmentation in research efforts to provide such an evidence base [ 7 ]. Our search included articles published as late as September 1, 2019, when this study was first undertaken.

Search strategy

We searched PubMed and Scopus for articles with significant discussion of the ethical issues of humanitarian research ethics. After a qualitative assessment of relevant keywords, we identified all pertinent articles based on the following terminology categories (articles could be in any language): (1) humanitarian settings (terms such as humanitarian, global health, disaster, emergency and/or conflict), (2) ethics (terms such as ethic(s), bioethics, human rights and/or rights) and (3) research type (terms such as research, program evaluation, monitoring and evaluation and/or investigation). The full search strategy and MeSH terms can be found in the Appendix . The initial search results of 1459 articles underwent a title and abstract review followed by a full text review by two different authors (WB and RH) (Fig.  1 ). A priori inclusion criteria included the 22-year timeframe mentioned above and selected for articles with robust discussion of ethical issues in the context of conducting research in humanitarian settings. Any article deemed by both reviewers to contain only a superficial mention of ethical issues and to not substantively (1) discuss ethics or (2) focus on research (3) in the context of humanitarian settings was excluded from the final analysis. Ethics was defined broadly as engagement with specific research ethics, as well as human rights issues, and other non-formal discussions of right versus wrong and other moral concepts. Research was defined as discussions including any types of data collection including quantitative and qualitative, as well as data collection for monitoring and evaluation for other programmatic and academic purposes. Humanitarian settings included diverse contexts including conflict and post-conflict states, post-natural disaster settings and refugee camps that requires specific interventions to prevent large scale suffering of the populations. Two authors (WB and RH) reviewed the final list of articles meeting the inclusion criteria.

figure 1

Stages of Systematic Literature Review Utilizing PRISMA Guidelines

Analytical methods

We used a modified meta-ethnographic approach to inductively identify key concepts and synthesize the major themes [ 17 ]. We chose the meta-ethnographic approach as it has been shown useful in other systematic reviews of qualitative health literature in that it utilizes an inductive approach that can account for differences in methodology and focus, and has the potential to provide a higher level of analysis and generate new research questions [ 18 , 19 , 20 ]. We conducted three steps of analysis: (1) Identifying original concepts and ideas from each paper that related to cross-cutting themes; (2) synthesizing these ideas into cross-cutting themes; and (3) identifying major themes. These steps are outlined in Table  2 . Original concepts were topics discussed in each paper, which the authors felt had some relevance to this paper’s focus on humanitarian research ethics. Cross-cutting themes were key concepts that were identified in at least two different articles. We assessed how the cross-cutting themes may fall into broader overarching ideas and coded these into related non-mutually exclusive groups we termed major themes. The synthesis process of extracting these major themes was one of reciprocal translation and constant comparison of concepts across studies. The process elucidated tensions and areas for future research within each major theme, as shown in Table 2 . Any disagreements on the analysis were resolved with discussion and consensus.

This research, based on previously published literature, did not meet criteria for Institutional Review Board approval.

Of the 1459 unique articles resulting from our search terms, 52 matched our inclusion criteria (Table 1 : List of Included Articles). The articles took the shape of five non-mutually exclusive categories of analysis: 32 were expert statements, 18 were case studies, 11 contained original research, eight were literature reviews and three were book chapters. All included articles were published in English. Thirty-four of the 52 (65.38%) articles were published in 2015 or later, ten between 2007 and 2014, and eight were published in the 1997–2006 decade (Fig.  2 ). Of the 52 articles included for final analysis, 23 were published by international teams (meaning that they were comprised of members from at least two different countries), 12 were from the United States, six from the United Kingdom, three from Canada, two each form Ireland, Trinidad and Tobago, and Switzerland, and one each from Australia and India.

figure 2

Included articles by publication date

Thematic analysis

The step-wise analysis is presented in Table 2 . First order analysis of the articles meeting our final inclusion criteria revealed ideas and issues within the context of ethics related research in humanitarian settings. In the second phase of the analysis, qualitative review of the reports identified cross-cutting themes between the papers, and 10 major themes that encompassed these concepts and points. These major themes in descending order of prevalence were ethics review process (21 articles, [40.38%]); community engagement (15 articles [28.85%]); the dual imperative , or necessity that research be both academically sound and policy driven and clinical trials in the humanitarian setting (13 articles for each, [25.0%]); informed consent (10 articles [19.23%]); cultural considerations (6 articles, [11.54%]); risks to researchers (5 articles, [9.62%]); child participation (4 articles [7.69%]), and finally mental health , and data ownership (2 articles for each [3.85%]).

Ethical review

Discussion of the ethical review process was the most commonly identified theme, with 21 articles having a substantive focus on this [ 11 , 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 , 40 ]. Independent ethics review prior to the start of a study is a core component of research ethics. Tansey et al. conducted a survey of ethics review board members with experience in reviewing research ethics in disaster settings. Their results suggest a general feeling that research in this setting is not only of particularly high social value, making it a desirable pursuit, but also necessitates a higher level of justification due to the inherent vulnerability of the research subjects [ 33 ]. There is also general agreement that the innate fluidity and urgency of humanitarian situations make swift and efficient ethics review of paramount importance [ 11 , 25 , 29 ]. Hunt et al. report, “where research is launched in response to a sudden-onset disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, researchers may need to initiate their protocols quickly in order to answer research questions pertinent to the acute phase of the disaster response” [ 11 ]. However, as mentioned above, the particular vulnerability of the subjects being studied leads many research ethics committees to automatically identify humanitarian research as requiring “the highest level of stringency”. On the other hand, framing research as “needs assessments” and/or “monitoring and evaluation,” which is often done in evaluating aid needs and programs, may act to sideline rigorous ethical review and jeopardize the well-being of the recipient population [ 11 ]. This contradiction of values makes ethical review of humanitarian research particularly challenging.

Authors suggested strategies to mitigate the inherent challenges of ethics review in this setting [ 25 ]. For example, Hunt et al. suggest pre-approved research protocol templates which can be quickly customized for use in individual emergencies [ 11 ]. Eckenwiler et al. propose what they refer to as ‘real-time responsiveness,’ which is an iterative strategy of constant dialogue between ethics reviewers and researchers while studies are being conducted [ 24 ]. Given the potential for misstep in an expedited initial ethics review, Chiumento et al. describe the utility of a post-research ethical audit. The authors explain how this could help to evaluate “procedural ethics against in-practice realities”, which could help inform future studies [ 21 ]. Ethical analysis after data collection may also offer the added benefit of offering lessons on the review and practice process to the reviewers and researchers.

Our results highlighted the particular case of how the humanitarian aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF), who conducts substantial research in humanitarian settings, has devised an independent Ethics Review Board (ERB). The ERB utilizes several of the strategies mentioned above such as pre-approved protocols, engaging in ongoing dialogue between researchers and the ERB and conducting post-research evaluations [ 29 , 31 ]. Saxena et al. reported on a joint panel conducted by the WHO and the African Coalition for Epidemic Research, Response and Training. The authors outline the group’s recommendations for “rapid and sound ethics review”, which includes “preparing national ethics committees for outbreak response; pre-crisis review of potential protocols; multi-country review; coordination between national ethics committees and other key stakeholders; data and benefit sharing; and export of samples to third countries” [ 32 ]. Indeed, as Mezinska et al. point out in their systematic review of ethical guidelines, most of the analyzed documents included in their report did “not attempt to give researchers and other stakeholders a comprehensive overview of how to proceed ethically in all types of research and in all types of disasters”, which the authors see as problematic given that “disaster research is unavoidably context and time sensitive, making generalized guidance less applicable” [ 35 ].

Community engagement

Substantive involvement of the community being studied was identified as an imperative for researchers and a major theme of discussion in 15 articles [ 21 , 22 , 30 , 32 , 33 , 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 , 45 , 46 , 47 , 48 , 49 , 50 ]. It was generally agreed that active participation is necessary in order to fulfill the ethical requisite that research be of use to the community being studied (also known as beneficence) [ 22 , 48 , 50 ]. As Chiumento et al. identified in their systematic review of mental health literature, the right to participate in research can be viewed as a basic right in and of itself, insofar as it relates to other rights such as self-determination and autonomy [ 22 ]. One important strategy described was involving local community health and government officials in an effort to maximize community support [ 43 ]. More practically speaking, this effort can help limit potential for a community’s misunderstanding of research, which can jeopardize a project’s legitimacy and undermine its acceptance [ 46 ]. Early involvement of community actors, potentially via consultation during study protocol design or community meetings, was suggested [ 21 , 42 ].

The discussions within the articles suggest that community involvement also involves strengthening local institutions, effectively improving their ability to conduct their own research [ 21 , 22 ]. Despite being recognized as an important component of ethical research, it was generally agreed that there is a critical shortage of local capacity to carry out studies, particularly in post-conflict zones where formal institutions are often eroded [ 45 , 47 ]. In their study on the research capacity of Somaliland, Boyce et al. identified potential harms of a “dominance of authors from [High-Income Countries]” [ 45 ]. They explain that, for example, the unrelatability between researcher and subject could lead to a reduced relevance of the research question.

Despite the agreement for “a set of practices that help researchers establish and maintain relationships with the stakeholders to a research program”, Tansey et al. discuss some of the inherent challenges in community participation. Particularly when conducting disaster research, the practicality of including locals can be difficult when “you don’t know when the disaster is going to hit. .. so it would be hard to set up community approvals and engagement beforehand” [ 33 ]. Furthermore, lack of adequately trained researchers and poor local infrastructure are perennial problems [ 45 ]. While ethically desirable, partnering with the local community may, in many circumstances, often prove practically prohibitive.

While including local authorities in research may seem prudent on face value, as discussed in the section on cultural considerations, these articles make clear the potential for ethical ambiguity when dealing with such actors [ 47 , 49 ]. For example, in a civil war context, researchers may hope to adhere to humanitarian principles of impartiality to ensure access to participants and safety for researchers [ 49 ]. Furthermore, as Funk et al. describe in their evaluation of the response to the Syrian conflict, remaining impartial can be impossible. One respondent explained, “You have to understand that even though we declare ourselves as a non-biased health organization with no political standing, the mere fact that we are not ‘pro-government’ makes us [perceived as] ‘the enemy’ and ‘anti-government’” [ 49 ].

The dual imperative

Thirteen articles discuss what humanitarian researchers refer to as the ‘dual imperative,’ which is the inherent tension between ensuring that research is both academically sound and practically relevant [ 28 , 41 , 53 , 55 , 57 , 58 , 59 , 60 , 61 , 62 , 63 , 64 , 71 ]. Despite the inherent challenges in humanitarian research, the general consensus is that it is justifiable insofar as it is needs-driven and not at the expense of humanitarian action [ 60 ]. However, as researchers attempt to construct sophisticated research and attract funding, there is a move toward a greater level of academic sophistication [ 59 ]. On the individual level, a member of a humanitarian response team may feel responsibilities as both service provider and researcher [ 58 , 61 ]. Wood, in her description of experiences researching conflict zones in El Salvador, describes an inevitable self-inquiry of why this research is worth pursing at the expense of a purely humanitarian medical relief mission. She concludes that her role as a researcher was justified in that a sound understanding of conflict is necessary for its abolishment. Wood does, however, concede that this conclusion may be predicated on the nature of the “relatively benign and coherent conditions” of her work. Specifically, she “did not have to make a decision whether or not to intervene to attempt to prevent or mitigate an attack on civilians.” She “did not have to decide how to leave an area under attack at short notice, retreating with one force or seeking shelter from another.” She was “never faced with direct threats [insisting] that [she] turn over material [she] had gathered” and did not have “to judge how far to press respondents about violence they had suffered or observed because of the focus of [her] research.” The implication was that had she been faced with one of these more charged situations, her resolve in the justification of research would be challenged. In fact, she ends her discussion by stating that “conditions in many civil wars simply preclude ethical field research” [ 62 ].

Another related point of contention identified in our search is a disagreement that arose between a researcher and aid agency. Due to an overtaxed and under resourced system, the Democratic Republic of Congo had engaged in rationing of AIDS medications. Rennie, a global health researcher, had intended to study the community attitudes toward this practice [ 55 ]. Feeling rationing medications to be unethical, the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), specifically MSF-Belgium, wrote a letter informing Rennie that they would not support his investigation [ 55 , 63 ]. They expressed concern that the research might be a form of acquiescence to the practice of drug rationing, which they see as antithetical to the humanitarian mission [ 63 ]. This tension between assessing an existing program and unintentionally bringing legitimacy to it is one of many practical conflicts in humanitarian research that requires further consideration.

Clinical trials in the humanitarian setting

Given that clinical trials are considered imperative for investigating medical interventions, many researchers advocate for these types of studies in the humanitarian setting. Thirteen articles explore the ethics of conducting clinical trials in the humanitarian setting [ 27 , 29 , 30 , 36 , 38 , 46 , 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 , 56 , 63 ]. Lanini et al. make the point that the principle of clinical equipoise should apply in the humanitarian setting as in any other, making randomized controlled trials (RCTs) the most ethical way to conduct research in this situation, using the recent Ebola outbreak and subsequent drug trials to illustrate their point [ 51 ]. With respect to Ebola, Perez et al. make the claim that, given the lethality of the disease, not including pregnant women and children (two groups often excluded from trials on grounds of inherent vulnerability) in Ebola trials is unethical [ 46 ]. This, however, presupposes a benefit to the experimental arm of a hypothetical trial, which would violate the principle of clinical equipoise and thus Lanini et al.’s justification of clinical trials outlined above [ 51 ]. Salerno et al. argue that the unique circumstances of conducting research in humanitarian settings necessitates that the researcher be less stringent in terms of study design. As the authors explain, “the recipients of experimental interventions, locations of studies, and study design should be based on the aim to learn as much as we can as fast as we can without compromising patient care or health worker safety, with active participation of local scientists, and proper consultation with communities” [ 52 ].

Again, with a focus on the recent Ebola outbreak, Calain makes an argument that insistence on RCTs, in which, by definition, one group of participants will be denied the experimental treatment, equates to a preference toward a collective interest (i.e. societal) over the individual (i.e. the patient) which could violate the basic principle of beneficence [ 53 ]. For Calain, in the face of a catastrophic illness like Ebola, randomization of interventions is seen as a “tragic choice” for humanitarian workers [ 53 ]. Furthermore, as Schopper et al. explained, there is justifiable concern that clinical trials during such an epidemic, which require significant amounts of resources and planning, would detract from the crucial work of directly caring for patients in a resource limited setting [ 29 ].

Informed consent

Like formal ethical review, informed consent is another core component of modern research ethics and was separately discussed in ten articles [ 21 , 22 , 23 , 27 , 37 , 38 , 44 , 46 , 65 , 66 ]. Our results highlight several unique considerations when contemplating informed consent in humanitarian settings. For example, Western norms of written consent might be impossible if research is carried out in a population with low literacy rates or when written consent can violate the need for complete anonymity or expeditious research [ 21 , 22 , 44 ]. Controversy surrounding traditional ideas of informed consent were highlighted by Chiumento et al. in their literature review [ 22 ]. The authors explain that despite the general consensus that informed consent was central to ethical research, there were some authors who emphasized a more informal process that considered “consent as a partnership between researchers and participants” [ 22 ]. Some authors surveyed in the study supported flexibility in informed consent by utilizing a “consent framework” that presumably ensures norms such as autonomy and capacity, but allows some latitude for the researcher to adapt to the circumstances. Germane to this point is what Black et al. describe as “dynamic consent”—where a participant’s willingness to be involved in a project is constantly reassessed [ 44 ].

Chiumento et al. explain that because of cultural norms, the typical processes of consent may be undesirable or even impossible [ 21 ]. In their case study of research conducted in a post-conflict setting in South Asia, they explain that the procurement of informed consent first required permission from gatekeepers (i.e. household males and village elders) [ 21 ]. They outline the concept of negotiated consent in which collaboration with researchers helps to distil what exactly culturally specific consent would look like and proceed with an ad-hoc consent process [ 21 ].

Our results suggest that special attention be paid to informed consent during clinical trials conducted in the humanitarian setting [ 29 , 46 , 51 ]. Particularly illustrative is the idea of informed consent for experimental therapies during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–2015 [ 46 ]. Authors raise the question as to whether or not informed consent, free of coercion, can really be possible when potential subjects are faced with such a deadly disease [ 23 ].

The use of participatory visual methods (PVM) poses specific challenges with regard to informed consent. The methods ask researchers to encourage subjects to engage in creative forms of communication and expression, such as drama, photography, film, drawing, design, creative writing and music. The products can then be used to engage the community and answer research questions.

However, as participants are synthesizing novel content during the study, and are often encouraged to draw on traumatic experiences as inspiration for this content, fully informed consent is impossible. This is because neither participants nor investigators can completely anticipate which direction their facilitated creative endeavors might turn [ 44 , 65 ]. This type of research may require more creative or dynamic forms of consent such as frequent check-ins with participants, or “dynamic consent”, as described above.

Cultural considerations

The importance of strong appreciation, humility, and understanding of local culture was discussed to a robust degree in six articles [ 21 , 47 , 50 , 57 , 64 , 67 ]. As Black et al. explain, research can only be legitimate if it accepts the people as central actors [ 57 ]. They describe how community and cultural dynamics may be vital to ensuring that the products of research not be utilized in perverse ways [ 57 ]. The authors explain that analyzed and interpreted data on a particular population could be of strategic value to belligerents in a conflict setting [ 57 ]. This notion presents an obvious ethical challenge as it has the potential to make researchers active participants in conflict or surveillance. One may conclude that the solution is for researchers to refuse to share data with any local authorities. This, however, conflicts with what Ditton et al. refer to as a vital aspect of ethical field research, namely “the importance that the researcher has an appropriate relationship with the legitimate gatekeepers [and policy makers] of a field site” [ 47 ]. As the authors note, local authorities may have perfectly legitimate reasons for demanding cooperation and transparency from researchers. For example, in Thailand, government control of researchers might be justifiable since they espouse it as necessary to ensure that the local population is the ultimate beneficiaries of the research produced within their communities. The government, being responsible for the public’s well-being, argues that having some control over research activities is necessary for them to meet this responsibility [ 47 ].

Despite general agreement about the importance of respect for local customs, there is more ambivalence toward which, if any, customs might justifiably be ignored. Bennouna et al. in their survey of researchers explain that 15% of respondents did not believe that local attitudes should be taken into account when deciding on including children in a study, because “what if they tell us not to listen to children?” implying that local norms should not preclude children from having a right to be heard [ 67 ]. In contrast, Chiumento et al. suggest “that ethical conduct of research does not equate to importing cultural norms.” The authors continue to describe a common “ethically charged dilemma” in which consent or access to participants first requires permission from a “gatekeeper.” Cultural norms may dictate that (often male) household or community leaders are to make decisions in terms of participation and access to research, depriving some members of the community of basic “ethic and human rights norms” such as autonomy and the right to participate or refuse [ 21 ]. These points highlight an unanswered question regarding the universality of ethical principles.

Not only might respect for cultural norms be inherently ethically desirable, but it may also be important for ensuring community participation. As Mfutso-Bengo et al. explain, respect for cultural norms may be necessary “to ensure active community involvement as the community does not perceive overt threats to their way of life” [ 50 ]. Balancing fundamental ethical principles of inclusion and autonomy with cultural norms, the articles agree, requires deep cultural understanding.

Risks to researchers

Five of our included articles discuss the potential risk to researchers working in a humanitarian setting [ 21 , 23 , 49 , 68 , 69 ]. With the inherent instability of many of these contexts, Chiumento et al. summarize the wide range of potential risks to the wellbeing of researchers, stating that “threats to physical safety; risk of psychological distress; potential for accusations of improper behavior; and increased exposure to everyday risks such as infectious illnesses or accidents” must be recognized [ 21 ]. The very nature of conducting research in disaster settings exposes researchers to the potential of witnessing “human carnage and physical destructiveness” [ 23 ]. While researchers have personal decision-making responsibilities, host organizations must also acknowledge their obligations to provide security and mitigate risks while ensuring the researchers are fully informed of potential dangers [ 23 , 69 ].

Child participation

Child participation in research was discussed in four articles [ 43 , 65 , 67 , 70 ]. There was a general consensus that despite being particularly vulnerable, researchers had an ethical responsibility to include children in their studies. This action is necessary, the authors conclude, in order to ensure that children’s voices are heard and that they are not excluded from potential benefits of the research [ 67 ].

D’Amico et al. explain “researchers need to develop specific approaches that ensure children understand the benefit of participating voluntarily in research and that consent is informed and an ongoing process” [ 65 ]. The challenge, however, as the authors explain, is that through research, particularly qualitative forms such as PVM, “dangerous emotional terrain” might be breeched [ 65 ]. The implication is that it is difficult to know whether anyone can fully consent to these unforeseen emotional responses, especially children.

Data ownership

Two articles describe the unique ethical concerns surrounding data ownership when conducting research in the humanitarian setting [ 45 , 57 ]. Often, none of the researchers in question are from the communities being studied, so the potential ethical pitfalls of an abusive extractive nature of data collecting might be created [ 45 ]. The concern arises when researchers from high-income countries collect data on lower income communities and the ultimate benefits are seen in the former [ 57 ].

Mental health

Mental health research, which was discussed in two articles, has some unique features, which create special ethical issues [ 21 , 22 ]. For example, Chiumento et al. describe how community mistrust, stigma and paranoia can be particularly significant with regard to mental health, complicating mental health research [ 21 ]. There is also a particular importance for confidentiality and anonymity during mental health research given the potential for discrimination and stigmatizing behavior [ 22 ].

With the drive toward professionalization of humanitarian practice comes a need to develop a strong evidence base. While the latter half of the twentieth century has seen promising trends in favor of ethical standards for research, the unique conditions of humanitarian work and the particular vulnerabilities of the communities being studied makes exploration of humanitarian research ethics imperative. The time-sensitive nature of the work in combination with complex cultural and security dynamics makes conducting research in the humanitarian setting inherently difficult from an ethical perspective.

Efforts to better understand the nexus between research and humanitarian emergencies are expanding. Other research, including an ongoing review of ethics of humanitarian research and more focused analyses of ethics among specific crises will service to expand this knowledge base [ 72 ]. We hope that this paper, representing a broad review and meta-ethnographic analysis of ethical issues in research over more than two decades, strengthens ethical processes and decision making in the humanitarian sector.

Among the 52 articles included in the analysis, 10 major themes regarding the ethics of humanitarian research were extracted for future analysis. In our qualitative analysis of the articles, we found a general acceptance by authors that the increased vulnerabilities of crisis-affected populations lead to several unique issues. Though identified and described in our search, many of these issues have yet to be adequately resolved in a way that might be useful to further researchers. For example, with regard to respect for local cultural norms, our results highlight a unique conflict between a cultural or political demand to share research with a local authoritative body and moral or ethical apprehensions to do so [ 47 , 57 ]. Authors identified both acceptable and unacceptable reasons for an authoritative body to demand access to research [ 47 , 57 ]. The researcher must then decide whether they cooperate with authorities by sharing products of their research, and risk being complicit in less socially desirable actions, or refuse and risk access to their study population, potentially depriving them of the fruits of their work. And to the related point embodied in the disagreement between MSF-Belgium and Rennie, controversy persists as to whether cooperating with an authoritative body to study a practice in which they are engaged suggests support of that practice [ 55 , 63 ]. Further exploration of these questions is essential as the role of research on humanitarian response expands.

Our results suggest that themes of cultural considerations, community engagement and mental health research incorporate ethical dilemmas related to cultural relativism. Accepting cultural norms such as gaining a husband’s consent for his wife’s participation in a research study, or excluding children from a research project on the grounds that including them is too high risk, equates to denying some of the fundamental principles of ethical research. Therefore, researching these populations may mean conceding to certain undesirable cultural norms and rejecting others that would require the researcher to compromise ethical standards. But where should the line be drawn? What guiding principles can future researchers employ? Bennouna et al.’s survey, which revealed most researchers claimed they would, if necessary, ignore local customs and include a child’s point of view in a study might help answer the question [ 67 ]. More of this type of research needs to be done in order to identify and resolve potential conflicts of local norms and traditional research ethics.

A surprising result of our study was that some researchers held the view that certain components of traditional, modern research ethics, such as formal consent, may be applied less rigidly in the humanitarian setting [ 21 , 22 , 44 ]. For example, arguments have been made that any consent is impossible in the case of experimental treatment for Ebola victims, and the failure to meet traditional standards should not preclude one from conducting this research [ 52 ]. On the other hand, there may be certain universal ethical principles of conducting research that should never be compromised. Exactly which principles these are, if any, have yet to be elucidated.

There are further unanswered questions with regard to the involvement of local institutions. Though our results point to a general agreement about the magnanimity of significant local involvement in research, including the development of local capacity for such work the inherent challenges have yet to be addressed [ 27 , 33 ]. Humanitarian research is often conducted in places with little or no infrastructure and limited numbers of qualified researchers. Including local aid workers as researchers, solely for the inherent value of doing so, may prove costly and distract from other research mandates and aid delivery, particularly in disaster relief. As Tansey et al. put it, “while the global health research literature strongly endorses community engagement in all research, there have been few suggestions for overcoming challenges to carrying it out in the disaster setting” [ 33 ]. Future work must come to terms with this inevitable conflict of ideals.

Despite the unavoidable ethical challenges, the results of this systematic review suggest that not only is it possible to conduct research in this context, but there is an ethical obligation to do so [ 41 , 48 ]. If the global community is compelled to provide assistance in the form of humanitarian action, than those in the humanitarian field must acknowledge the responsibility to develop rational, evidence-based approaches that are, at their core, ethically responsible [ 41 ]. This impulse is reflected in our results, which demonstrate an increasing number of publications on humanitarian research ethics since the inception of the Sphere project. The growing body of literature bodes well for researchers looking to ground their future work in a strong ethical foundation.

We would like to note, however, that the vast majority of articles included in this study were from high-income and Western countries. This highlights a finding in the research itself—that community participation and involvement of researchers from the countries and regions affected by crisis is limited. Addressing this inequity should be prioritized as the field of humanitarian research ethics progresses.

It should be noted that our study has limitations. We attempted to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature with a systematic review, augmented by known grey literature, but may have missed some potentially relevant literature that did not fit the search terms and was not identified via the grey literature review. This review is based primarily on published research literature and may exclude operational or programmatic reports with valuable insights. Also, though our initial search did include book chapters via the Scopus database, and dozens of chapters have been written on the subject, relatively few were screened into our final list of included literature. The reason for this is not immediately apparent. The authors did note a relative difficulty in the searching for and screening of book chapters when compared with other types of articles. This may have lead to a preferential selection of the latter type of literature, at the expense of the former.

The selection of papers was systematic and reproducible, and the analysis of those papers relied on standard qualitative methods. While the analysis may be considered less reproducible, we utilized a standardized interpretive methodology that would reliably highlight the critical findings and points within the papers as evidenced by the strong consensus between the authors (WB and RH) on almost every inclusion and exclusion decision. Though the limited literature base makes drawing firm conclusions difficult, the consistency of issues raised between and within the articles confirms the importance of the major themes elicited in this analysis.

This study represents one of only very few attempts at a systematic review of research ethics in the humanitarian setting. We identified an increase in articles with robust ethical discussions particularly in the past few years. This promising trend could lead to further clarification and stronger ethical grounding of future research. Our data also highlight a number of unanswered questions related to fundamental conflicts that are unique to conducting research in the humanitarian setting. There is a clear need for further research and debate addressing these, and other important questions, such as: When is it appropriate to share data with local authorities? At what point should a researcher abandon a cultural relativistic point of view for an absolutist one? In a modern day humanitarian setting, what components of traditional ethics review may be anachronistic? How can researchers include local stakeholders as co-investigators when they may lack the training or infrastructure to do so? Mechanisms to translate these discussions into practical guidelines will need to be strengthened if the ideals of the Sphere Project are to be realized.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and/or analyzed during the current study are available as tables in the manuscript.

Abbreviations

Ethical Review Board

Low and Middle Income Countries

Médecins Sans Frontières

Randomized Clinical Trial

World Health Organization

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Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge Parveen Parmar and Len Rubenstein for support in developing the conceptual framework of this study.

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Bruno, W., Haar, R.J. A systematic literature review of the ethics of conducting research in the humanitarian setting. Confl Health 14 , 27 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13031-020-00282-0

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ethics in writing literature review

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Ethical Standards in Writing Related Literature

When conducting research, one of the essential components is the review of related literature. This process involves evaluating the available literature on a particular topic and synthesizing it to provide context and support for the research being conducted. As with any aspect of research, there are ethical standards that should be followed when conducting a review of related literature. In this article, we will discuss some of the key ethical standards in writing related literature.

Objectivity

One of the most important ethical standards in writing related literature is objectivity. It is essential to approach the literature without bias and to evaluate it based on its relevance to the research question being addressed. This means that the researcher must avoid selectively citing only those sources that support their hypothesis or agenda. Instead, they must present a balanced and unbiased review of the literature. This requires careful attention to the quality of the sources, the strength of the evidence presented, and the potential for bias in the research.

Transparency

Another essential ethical standard in conducting a review of related literature is transparency. Researchers must be transparent about their sources, the methods used to select and evaluate them, and any potential conflicts of interest that may affect their objectivity. This includes disclosing any funding sources, affiliations with organizations that may have an interest in the research, and any personal biases that may affect the review.

The quality of the sources used in a review of related literature is critical. Researchers must use high-quality sources that have been peer-reviewed, and the information presented must be accurate and reliable. This means that researchers must carefully evaluate the sources they use and avoid relying on sources that are biased, outdated, or unreliable.

Originality

Another important ethical standard in conducting a review of related literature is originality. Researchers must avoid plagiarism and ensure that their work is original and not based on the work of others. This means that researchers must cite their sources appropriately and ensure that they do not use the work of others without proper attribution.

Respect for Intellectual Property Rights

Researchers must also respect the intellectual property rights of others. This includes giving credit to the original authors of the sources used in the review of related literature. Researchers must ensure that they do not violate copyright laws, and they must obtain permission from the copyright holder before using any copyrighted material.

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

Researchers must also avoid conflicts of interest when conducting a review of related literature. This means that they must avoid citing sources that have been written by individuals or organizations with whom they have a personal or professional relationship. Researchers must also disclose any potential conflicts of interest to ensure that their work is unbiased and objective.

Responsibility

Researchers have a responsibility to ensure that their work has a positive impact on society and contributes to the advancement of knowledge. When writing related literature, it is important to ensure that the information presented is relevant and meaningful and has the potential to contribute to the broader research community.

Respect for Participants

Finally, researchers must respect the participants in the research they are reviewing. This means that they must ensure that the sources used in the review do not violate the privacy or confidentiality of the participants. Researchers must also ensure that the sources used in the review do not exploit or harm the participants in any way.

The ethical standards outlined above are essential when conducting a review of related literature. Researchers must approach the literature objectively, be transparent about their sources and methods, use high-quality sources, avoid plagiarism and respect intellectual property rights, avoid conflicts of interest, and respect the participants in the research. By following these ethical standards, researchers can ensure that their review of related literature is unbiased, reliable, and contributes to the overall body of knowledge in their field.

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