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The San Code of Research Ethics (lay summary)

This is a lay summary of the article published under the DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-15745-6_7

Published onApr 19, 2023
The San Code of Research Ethics (lay summary)

San Code of Research Ethics gives clear rules for research with indigenous people 

For the first time, an indigenous group in Africa has drawn up a code of ethics for how researchers should approach working with them. By creating the code of ethics, the San hope to prevent exploitation and foster fair relationships between indigenous communities and researchers.

For many years, studies of San people have been done without properly consulting them, and research often had a disruptive or negative effect on their lives. Before 1996, San people also lacked support from organisations and institutions that could protect their interests. As a result, the relationship between researchers and the San people was not always equal, and some researchers exploited San people.

The San Code of Research Ethics was therefore created to ensure that researchers act with fairness and integrity when dealing with them.

In this study, researchers documented the process of drafting the code.

They said San leaders met during 3 workshops to discuss issues facing their people. The San were supported in this by two non-profit organisations, the South African San Institute (SASI) and the South African San Council (SASC).  

The San representatives were particularly interested in how to encourage fair research partnerships, especially in areas where communities don’t have a deep understanding of research or could be exploited because of poverty.

They identified key principles that they felt were important for any research involving their people. They said researchers should act with respect and fairness, and should care for the community they worked with, and be honest about their research goals. 

They also added that researchers should follow the correct processes, as set out by the San Council, when doing any research with San communities. The principles of fairness, respect, caring and honesty were then used as subsections to create the final San Code of Research Ethics. 

The code also includes past examples of how each of these principles was violated, and clearly explains how future research projects should be approached.

The authors of this study, and other experts, advised San leaders on certain aspects of ethics and law to assist with the drafting of the ethics code. They say that establishing these ethical guidelines is the first step towards creating equal and fair research partnerships with San people in the future.

This report forms part of a larger project called TRUST, which is funded by the European Union and aims to create fair and ethical standards for research with vulnerable people around the world.  


The San peoples of southern Africa have been the object of much academic research over centuries. In recent years, San leaders have become increasingly convinced that most academic research on their communities has been neither requested, nor useful, nor protected in any meaningful way. In many cases dissatisfaction, if not actual harm, has been the result. In 2017, the South African San finally published the San Code of Research Ethics, which requires all researchers intending to engage with San communities to commit to four central values, namely fairness, respect, care and honesty, as well as to comply with a simple process of community approval. The code is the first ethics code developed and launched by an indigenous population in Africa. Key to this achievement were: dedicated San leaders of integrity, supportive NGOs, legal assistance and long-term research collaborations with key individuals who undertook fund-raising and provided strategic support.


This summary is a free resource intended to make African research and research that affects Africa, more accessible to non-expert global audiences. It was compiled by ScienceLink's team of professional African science communicators as part of the Masakhane MT: Decolonise Science project. ScienceLink has taken every precaution possible during the writing, editing, and fact-checking process to ensure that this summary is easy to read and understand, while accurately reporting on the facts presented in the original research paper. Note, however, that this summary has not been fact-checked or approved by the authors of the original research paper, so this summary should be used as a secondary resource. Therefore, before using, citing or republishing this summary, please verify the information presented with the original authors of the research paper, or email [email protected] for more information.

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