Building ethics into the research design

Literature reviews and systematic reviews

There are lots of reasons why researchers conduct literature reviews, so here we will focus only on issues relation to research ethics.  It is ethical practice to consider how your research can best build upon work that has already been done.  Research literature can be used, for example, to develop arguments about what needs to be studied, and why.  After exploring existing studies, you might even decide that a research question has already been answered - and so it could be unethical to research the issue again.

In a systematic review, the findings of existing studies themselves become raw data for analysis and interpretation.  Reports of research studies vary in how much detail they provide, and so study authors sometimes also act as sources of information about the detail of existing research. 

One reason why ethics is an important consideration in systematic and literature reviews is that it may not always be possible for the reviewer to identify the procedures - for example around consent - that were used to ensure ethical practice in the study being reviewed.

When you are carrying out a literature review or systematic review, consider the following key ethics questions: 

  • How will you ensure you treat the work of existing researchers accurately and fairly? 
  • Does the research you are reviewing raise ethics questions that you need to address?

If you are using the findings of existing research in a systematic review, there are a number of questions you should ask yourself, and - as appropriate - discuss with your supervisor and/or research team.

  • Will you limit yourself to reports and information that is already in the public domain?  Or will you contact the researchers for more detail?
  • If you ask a study author for more detail, how will you ensure that any exchange respects ethics principles?  For example, will it affect the confidentiality originally promised to study participants?
  • How will you incorporate ideas about respecting participants’ consent when deciding whether or not to use an existing study’s data? You need to weigh up any risk that participants’ data will be used or presented in a way they did not agree to, against any likely potential benefits from further use of their data.  Is it sufficient to consider that they gave permission for activities that were similar in purpose to your review, even if they did not consent specifically to your review?
  • Could there be occasions when you would decide not to include the findings of research in your review, because you were concerned about the ethics of that research?