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Conducting research in the aftermath of disasters: ethical considerations


Dónal P O’Mathúna, Senior Lecturer in Ethics, Decision-Making & Evidence, School of Nursing, Dublin City University,
Glasnevin, Dublin 9, Ireland.
Tel: +353 (0)1 700 7808
Fax: +353 (0)1 700 5688


Disaster research focuses on the impact disasters have on people and social structures. Planning for and responding to disasters require evidence to guide decision-makers. The need for such evidence provides an ethical mandate for the conduct of sound disaster research. Disaster research ethics draws attention to ethical issues common to all research involving human subjects. However, disaster research involves a number of distinctive factors, including the degree of devastation affecting participants and the urgency often involved in initiating research projects. Such factors generate ethical issues not usually encountered with other types of research, and create tensions that must be taken into account in designing and conducting disaster research so that it attains the highest ethical standards.

An overview of general research ethics issues is presented here in the context of disaster research. As with all research involving humans, protection of participants and minimizing harm is the highest ethical priority. Other ethical issues include formal ethical approval, informed consent, balancing burdens and benefits, participant recruitment, coercion, the role of compensation, and conflicts of interest. Using examples from specific studies, some of the distinctive features of disaster research ethics are discussed. These include cross-cultural collaboration and communication, vulnerability of participants arising from the degree of devastation, avoiding exploitation of disaster victims, and protecting researchers. The article concludes with some of the major challenges facing disaster research ethics and how they might be addressed.