International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Ethical Issues in Trauma Research


Ethical issues in trauma research have long been a strong focus for ISTSS and its members.

Investigators have the responsibility to conduct useful and scientifically sound clinical research, in a manner that is respectful of the dignity, autonomy, and welfare of research participants.

ISTSS and its members have helped to develop and validate a conceptual and empirical framework to guide decisions regarding research procedure and design in traumatic stress studies. There is a growing body of literature in this area that can inform the practice of trauma research.

Key review articles and tools regarding ethical conduct of trauma research

Becker-Blease, K. (2007) Five Tools for Ethical Trauma-Focused Research, Traumatic StressPoints, 21:4.

Can traumatized participants provide informed consent? Is trauma-focused research distressing? Must researchers report abuse? A workshop at the 2006 Conference on Innovations in Trauma Research Methods, presented the progress that researchers have made in addressing some longstanding concerns about the ethics of trauma-focused research. This article presents five tools from that talk that researchers can put to use right away:

1. Consent quizzes
2. Debriefing newsletters
3. Participant reaction assessment
4. Mandated reporting protocols
5. Research Assistant (RA) training and support

Newman, E. and Kaloupek, D. (2009), Overview of research addressing ethical dimensions of participation in traumatic stress studies: Autonomy and beneficence. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 22: 595–602. doi: 10.1002/jts.20465 

Abstract:  One element of the design of human research studies is ethically informed decision-making. Key issues include the safety, costs, and benefits of participation. Historically, much of this decision-making was based on opinion rather than formal evidence. Recently, however, investigators in the traumatic stress field have begun to collect data that are relevant to these decisions. In this article, the authors focus on issues emanating from the ethical concepts of autonomy and respect for persons and beneficence and nonmaleficence, and then summarize relevant evidence from studies with trauma-exposed individuals. This article addresses implications of this evidence for research practice and policy, and identifies some potentially informative data collection opportunities for future trauma studies.

Collogan, L. K., Tuma, F., Dolan-Sewell, R., Borja, S. and Fleischman, A. R. (2004), Ethical issues pertaining to research in the aftermath of disaster. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17: 363–372. doi: 10.1023/B:JOTS.0000048949.43570.6a

Abstract: In January 2003, The New York Academy of Medicine and the National Institute of Mental Health sponsored a meeting entitled “Ethical Issues Pertaining to Research in the Aftermath of Disaster.” The purpose of the meeting was to bring together various experts to examine evidence concerning the impact of research on trauma-exposed participants, review the applicable ethical principles and policies concerning protection of human subjects, and offer guidance to investigators, IRBs, public health and local officials, and others interested in assuring that research in the aftermath of a disaster is conducted in a safe and ethical manner. This article summarizes the group's key findings and outlines potential considerations for those working in this field.