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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.

Journal of Traumatic Stress Ethics Policy

The Journal of Traumatic Stress (JTS) abides by the ethical principles of the American Psychological Association (APA; 200220102017), the guidelines established by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE; n.d.) in its Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guidelines, as well as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’ (ICMJE; 2018Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals. However, we recently recognized that JTS has not previously articulated its own ethics policy. Such a written policy can play a valuable role in fully informing and guiding authors, readers, and reviewers regarding our ethical principles and the procedures we follow to ensure the highest standard of ethics in the conduct, reporting, and evaluation of the research published in JTS. In addition, a journal's ethics policy can help to promote open science by increasing transparency regarding the review process and articulating the publication's positions in relation to key issues involving data sharing and replicability. The present document redresses those gaps.

See JTS Ethical Guidelines.

Key Review Articles and Tools Regarding Ethical Conduct of Trauma Research

Ethical Dilemmas, Work‐Related Guilt, and Posttraumatic Stress Reactions of News Journalists Covering the Terror Attack in Norway in 2011

By Klas Backholm and Trond Idås
Journal of Traumatic Stress, Volume 28, Issue 2 

News journalists working on crisis‐related assignments may experience dilemmas with regard to how to conduct their work without causing additional harm to first‐hand victims. In this study, we investigated how exposure to journalistic ethical dilemmas during the Oslo/Utøya terror attack in 2011 and subsequent work‐related guilt were related to the development of posttraumatic stress (PTS) reactions. Norwegian journalists (N = 371) covering the terror attack participated in a web‐based survey 8–9 months after the incident. We found that females reported more ethical dilemmas during the assignment than males (n = 356, d = 0.51). We also found that being on the scene was not related to more exposure to dilemmas (n = 311, d = 0.01). Moreover, we discovered that work‐related guilt had a significant indirect effect on the relationship between exposure to ethical dilemmas and severity of PTS reactions (n = 344, completely standardized indirect effect size = .11, 95% CI [.04, .19]. The results showed that exposure to ethical dilemmas may affect the development of long‐term psychological impairment. We concluded that media organizations can prevent postcrisis impairment by preparing employees for possible exposure to dilemmas during crisis‐related assignments.

Five Tools for Ethical Trauma-Focused Research

By Kathryn Becker-Blease
Published in StressPoints, Volume 21, Issue 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

Overview of Research Addressing Ethical Dimensions of Participation in Traumatic Stress Studies: Autonomy and Beneficence

By Elana Newman and Danny Kaloupek 
Published in Journal of Traumatic Stress, Volume 22, Issue 6

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.

Ethical Issues Pertaining to Research in the Aftermath of Disaster

By Lauren K. Collogan, Farris Tuma, Regina Dolan‐Sewell, Susan Borja and Alan R. Fleischman
Published in Journal of Traumatic Stress, Volume 17, Issue 5

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.