Skip to main content

Research ethics practices during COVID-19

IDRC requires that research involving humans be carried out in accordance with the highest ethical standards. IDRC’s ethical conduct requirements are fundamentally focused on safety, respect, and justice for research participants. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, these specific concerns will be amplified, while also considering the safety of researchers.

IDRC provides official guidance on research ethics as part of grant agreements with partners, but this does not represent a formal policy statement from IDRC.

Applicants are encouraged to refer to the Canadian Tri-Council Policy Statement:  Ethical Conduct of Research involving Humans (TCPS 2) for information on how to manage ethical issues for research involving human participants. Additionally, applicants are encouraged to refer to Chapter 6, Section D of TCPS 2, which discusses ethics issues during the official declaration of public emergencies.

Specific considerations during health emergencies

Pandemics and emergencies are marked by multiple and mutually reinforcing challenges that render populations more vulnerable, including impacts on personal health and wellbeing, livelihoods, the physical environment, and the economy. Organizations supporting research under these circumstances have a responsibility to respond to the substantial ethical challenges that arise in such contexts by adjusting research processes and funding arrangements to protect the people being researched, as well as all researchers.

The following are elements of research ethics that require specific attention in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic:     

  • All studies should comply with the disaster emergency laws, rules, and guidelines of the country where the research is conducted.
  • Applicants and researchers will be required to adhere to all preventive measures as advised by the World Health Organization and national guidance.
  • No research activities should be undertaken if they impede emergency responses.
  • Safety considerations for research participants, as well as researchers, are paramount in health emergency and pandemic contexts. Research design needs to have clear protocols of risk assessment and mitigation strategies to ensure protection from risk of infection and to mitigate other health risks, including potential mental health impacts on research participants and researchers.
  • Remote interaction and conducting online or internet-based research are likely to be part of the research design with COVID-19 restrictions in place. These present specific ethical concerns regarding privacy, transparency, confidentiality, and security. Specific measures must be devised, implemented, and documented to:
    • ensure transparency during recruitment;
    • take necessary steps for data security and ensure that data are not used for subsequent non-research purposes.
    • offer participants the opportunity to modify their data; and
    • offer participants the opportunity to withdraw from the research and retract their data;
    • obtain informed and knowledgeable consent and ensure that consent is obtained on an ongoing basis;
    • use secure communication protocols and platforms;
    • consider the expectations of participants about privacy;

Note that research methodologies should not be modified if doing so would compromise the ethical standard of the research.

Key research issues in difficult contexts

Safety and principles of do-no-harm are critical in contexts of pandemics and emergencies. In IDRC’s experience, the following sets of questions are important for research in general and in challenging contexts, such as the COVID-19  pandemic:

Who sets the research agenda? Is research designed and defined at the local level, and how are priorities set? How are local perspectives reconciled with global agenda-setting, and how is research embedded in local knowledge ecosystems? Are there risks and bias in terms of research that is concentrated in and about easily accessible locations that might exclude less accessible areas and populations?

Who is the research for? How can research projects balance the benefits for the funder, the researcher, and research participants, and how can research findings be used to improve the well-being of research participants and populations? Funders may have a need for research to inform interventions, but they need to balance the risk of exacerbating vulnerabilities of targeted groups. Projects need to engage with a wide variety of research partners in addition to various local groups to avoid the convenience of narrow engagement.

How is research designed?  Research design must  focus on:

  • Equitable partnerships: co-creation of research questions and outcomes with local researchers, who must be treated as equal partners and not only as data collectors. Researchers must be explicit about power dynamics and power relationships. Furthermore, any known power differential between researchers and research participants must be addressed, along with group vulnerabilities for participants.
  • Balancing agility and safety: contexts with limited transparency and freedom of expression require specific research design that is agile to respond to urgent public health response policy needs while protecting the safety of researchers and research participants.
  • Cultural sensitivity: researchers must ensure sensitivity and empathy to the specific needs of the local context/culture.
  • Privacy and informed consent: informed consent from research participants must always be sought, ensuring that individuals are able to participate voluntarily in the study and understand the purpose of the research and the risks and benefits of their participation. Furthermore, the consent process must be ongoing, ensuring that participants are able to change or withdraw their consent at any time during or after the research. In terms of privacy, researchers must ensure that the personally identifiable information of participants is kept confidential, unless the participant gives consent to reveal their name in the research study.
  • Ethics implications of innovative data and methodology: use of innovations (e.g. remote imagery, large-scale data, and geo-referencing) require critical ethics oversight. A project’s use of these techniques must be sensitive to privacy safeguards, legal restrictions, public oversight mechanisms, and government permissions.
  • Application of ethics procedures: power imbalances can underlie the application of ethics procedures themselves. In such cases, research ethics measures should be developed and strengthened through learning and raising awareness.

Who owns the knowledge? What is done with data once it is collected? Are research findings shared with or made accessible to research participants? How are participants involved throughout the full research process? Researchers must clearly state the way findings from the study will be disseminated and ensure the choice of languages for research publication is relevant. Researchers should clearly state the way research participants can access the findings of the study.

What is the impact of the research?  Research may have unexpected or unintended negative outcomes. Given this possibility, ”do-no-harm” principles must be considered throughout the research process and applied with a gender, age, and equity lens. Researchers and funders have a duty of care, especially in traumatic situations, and need to be mindful of the experiences of the research participants as well as researchers. 

Relevant research ethics resources

Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research involving Humans

Cronin-Furman, K. & Lake, M. (2018). “Ethics abroad: Fieldwork in violent and fragile contexts.”

Lupton, D. (editor). (2020). “Doing fieldwork in a pandemic” (crowd-sourced document).

Jowett, A. (2020). “Carrying out qualitative research under lockdown – Practical and ethical considerations.”

Mormina, M., Horn, R., Hallowell, N., Musesengwa, R., Lingou, S. & Nguyen, J. (2020). “Guidance for research in response to humanitarian emergencies.” Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford.

World Health Organization. (2020). “Ethical standards for research during public health emergencies.”