Methods: The five stages of scoping review framework developed by Arksey and O'Malley (2005) were adopted. Stage 1: the research question is how research ethics are recognized and applied by social work researchers in China while conducting COVID-19-related empirical research involving human participants. Stage 2: Used a python web crawler to identify relevant studies published between January 5, 2020, to July 15, 2021, in Scopus-indexed social work journals. Stage 3: identified studies went through three rounds of screening and were accessed for the following inclusion criteria: 1) being written in English; 2) data collection conducted in China or among people living in China; 3) an empirical study in response to the pandemic; 4) involving human participants. Stage 4: charted the data. Stage 5: collated data based on the three fundamental ethical principles established since the Belmont Report, including Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice.
Results: In total, 1168 research articles were published in 50 of the 57 journals between January 5, 2020, to July 15, 2021. The first round of screening (title screened) retained 482 studies for the second round of screening (abstract screened), which yielded 31 studies entering the third round of screening (full text screened). Finally, 18 eligible studies met all inclusion criteria and were retained for further review. It was found that the application of research ethics primarily emphasized those ethical standards derived from the principle of Respect for Persons, such as Informed Consent, Voluntary, and Data Safety and Privacy, whereas less reported were ethical considerations on the principles of Justice (Additional Protection Subjects with Diminished or Limited Autonomy) and Beneficence (Risks to Human Subjects, Incentives Policy).
Conclusions and Implications: While the scope and application of research ethics are much influenced by Chinese culture and technology-enhanced research methods in the digital period, the Chinese social work authorities must localize and add specific ethical principles of research into the Chinese social work Codes of Ethics and promote the training of research ethics among Chinese MSW students and researchers. The scoping review also calls on international social work audiences to resonate on the issue of research ethics in their own countries.