A systematic review on ethical challenges of ‘field’ research in low-income and middle-income countries: respect, justice and beneficence for research staff?
Primary data collection in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) is associated with a range of ethical complexities. Considerations on how to adequately ensure the well-being of research staff are largely neglected in contemporary ethics discourse. This systematic review aims to identify the ethical challenges that research staff across different hierarchical levels and scientific disciplines face when conducting research in LMICs.
We searched 13 electronic databases and handsearched publications in six selected journals as well as the reference lists of all included studies. No restrictions were applied with respect to the publication date, research design, and target population.
23 151 studies were retrieved, 183 of which met our inclusion criteria. We identified nine different types of ethical challenges that research staff may be exposed to during field research, including (1) role conflicts that can emerge from participants’ help requests and the high level of deprivation found in certain study settings, (2) feelings of guilt and (3) detrimental mental health impacts. Further challenges were (4) sexual harassment (5) safety risks and (6) political repression, particularly in postconflict, disaster-ridden or autocratic study contexts. Additionally, studies reported (7) inadequate working conditions and (8) power imbalances within research teams, while (9) ethics boards were found to be ill equipped to anticipate and address emerging risks, thus increasing the ethical liability of researchers.
This review revealed several complex ethical challenges that research staff may face during data collection. In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 8.8 on ‘safe and secure working environments’ and to protect research staff from harm, amendments must urgently be made to current ethical standards.
Steinert JI, Atika Nyarige D, Jacobi M, et al A systematic review on ethical challenges of ‘field’ research in low-income and middle-income countries: respect, justice and beneficence for research staff? BMJ Global Health 2021;6:e005380.