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Code-consistent ethics review: defence of a hybrid account
  1. G Owen Schaefer
  1. Correspondence to Dr G Owen Schaefer, Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, Block MD11, Clinical Research Centre, 10 Medical Drive, Singapore 117597; medgos{at}nus.edu.sg

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It is generally unquestioned that human subjects research review boards should assess the ethical acceptability of protocols. It says so right on the tin, after all: they are explicitly called research ethics committees in the UK. But it is precisely those sorts of unchallenged assumptions that should, from time to time, be assessed and critiqued, in case they are in fact unfounded. John Stuart Mill's objection to suppressers of dissent is instructive here: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.1

Andrew Moore and Andrew Donnelly's compelling article, “The job of ‘ethics committees’”, is just this sort of challenge to conventional wisdom, a rejection of the notion that review boards should be considering ethical matters at all.2 If true, we should be substantially reforming our research ethics policies. And if false, rebuttals would help strengthen and ground the otherwise unquestioned assumption of the role of ethics committees. As it happens, I will argue that their critiques fall into the second category. While mistaken, they present a valuable opportunity to clarify the role of ethics committees and their relationship to relevant codes. In particular, I will defend a hybrid account where codes (those with regulatory force, in particular) have strict primacy, but leave significant room for review boards …

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