Since its introduction by the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki, the place held by ethics in biomedical research has been continuously increasing in importance. The past 30 years have also seen exponential growth in the number of biomedical articles published. A systematic review of the literature is the scientific way of synthesising a plethora of information, by exhaustively searching out and objectively analysing the studies dealing with a given issue. However, the question of ethics in systematic reviews is rarely touched upon. This could lead to some drawbacks, as systematic reviews may contain studies with ethical insufficiencies, may be a possible way to publish unethical research and may also be prone to conflict of interest. Finally, informed consent given for an original study is not necessarily still valid at the systematic review level. There is no doubt that routine ethical assessment in systematic reviews would help to improve the ethical and methodological quality of studies in general. However, ethical issues change so much with time and location, and are so broad in scope and in context that it appears illusory to search for a universal, internationally accepted standard for ethical assessment in systematic reviews. Some simple suggestions could nevertheless be drawn from the present reflection and are discussed in the paper.
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Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
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