J Med Ethics doi:10.1136/medethics-2011-100194
  • Research ethics
  • Paper

Is there an objective way to compare research risks?

  1. Robert M Nelson2
  1. 1Community Health and Prevention, Drexel University School of Public Health, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
  2. 2Office of Pediatric Therapeutics, Food and Drug Administration, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Rossi, Community Health and Prevention, Drexel University School of Public Health, 1505 Race Street, Bellet Building, 11th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19102, USA; jar444{at}
  1. Contributors JR provided primary conceptualisation and wrote the arguments presented in this manuscript. RMN provided additional conceptualisation of the arguments and assistance and supervision of the writing and editing of this manuscript.

  • Received 23 August 2011
  • Revised 1 February 2012
  • Accepted 2 February 2012
  • Published Online First 25 February 2012


Determining whether a research risk meets or exceeds a regulatory standard of risk acceptability is difficult. Recently a framework called the systematic evaluation of research risks (SERR) has been proposed as a method of comparing research risks with predetermined standards of acceptability. SERR purports to offer a systematic and largely determinate (definite) way to compare risks and say whether a specific research risk falls below or above an acknowledged standard of acceptable risk. Here the authors review some philosophical problems with this framework, which they take to be representative of determinate approaches to risk comparison, and conclude that it should not be used in a stand-alone or determinate fashion. Instead, the authors suggest that a deliberative approach may be a more viable candidate for future development. Such an approach could be informed by methods such as SERR without being rigidly bound to them.


  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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