Vulnerability in Research Ethics: a Way Forward


  • Margaret Meek Lange,

  • Wendy Rogers,

  • Susan Dodds

  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared

Address for correspondence: Dr Margaret Meek Lange, Philosophy Department, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia. Email:


Several foundational documents of bioethics mention the special obligation researchers have to vulnerable research participants. However, the treatment of vulnerability offered by these documents often relies on enumeration of vulnerable groups rather than an analysis of the features that make such groups vulnerable. Recent attempts in the scholarly literature to lend philosophical weight to the concept of vulnerability are offered by Luna and Hurst. Luna suggests that vulnerability is irreducibly contextual and that Institutional Review Boards (Research Ethics Committees) can only identify vulnerable participants by carefully examining the details of the proposed research. Hurst, in contrast, defines the vulnerable as those especially at risk of incurring the wrongs to which all research ethics participants are exposed. We offer a more substantive conception of vulnerability than Luna but one that gives rise to a different rubric of responsibilities from Hurst's. While we understand vulnerability to be an ontological condition of human existence, in the context of research ethics, we take the vulnerable to be research subjects who are especially prone to harm or exploitation. Our analysis rests on developing a typology of sources of vulnerability and showing how distinct sources generate distinct obligations on the part of the researcher. Our account emphasizes that the researcher's first obligation is not to make the research participant even more vulnerable than they already are. To illustrate our framework, we consider two cases: that of a vulnerable population involved in international research and that of a domestic population of people with diminished capacity.