BACKGROUND: There is relatively little research concerning the processes whereby Local Research Ethics Committees discharge their responsibilities towards society, potential participants and investigators. OBJECTIVES: To examine the criteria used by LRECs in arriving at their decisions concerning approval of research protocols through an analysis of letters sent to investigators. DESIGN: Four LRECs each provided copies of 50 letters sent to investigators after their submitted proposals had been considered by the committees. These letters were subjected to a content analysis, in which specific comments and requests for additional information and changes in the protocols were recorded and compared. FINDINGS: Overall 24% of proposals were approved without request for changes or clarifications, but this varied by committee: one committee approved only 6% of proposals without change or clarification while the others ranged from 26% to 32%. The content analyses of responses indicated that they could be placed into four categories: (i) further information for the committee to aid in their deliberations; (ii) requests for changes to the design or justification for the design used; (iii) changes to the information sheets provided to potential participants; and (iv) changes to consent procedures. Of these, alterations to information sheets were the most common type of request. These four types of response could be seen as safeguarding the wellbeing of potential participants (the principle of non-maleficence), of promoting the scientific validity of the research (the principle of beneficence), and of enhancing the rights of potential participants (the principle of autonomy). CONCLUSIONS: The committees were consistent in the types of requests they made of investigators, which can be seen as attempts to protect participants' rights and ensure the scientific validity of studies. Without an analysis of the proposals sent to the committees, however, it is difficult to account for the variation in the requirements set by the committees before approval was given.
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