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What is the role of the research ethics committee? Paternalism, inducements, and harm in research ethics
  1. E Garrard,
  2. A Dawson
  1. Centre for Professional Ethics, Keele Hall, Keele University, Staffs, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Eve Garrard
 Centre for Professional Ethics, Keele Hall, Keele University, Staffs, ST5 5BG, UK;


In a recent paper Edwards, Kirchin, and Huxtable have argued that research ethics committees (RECs) are often wrongfully paternalistic in their approach to medical research. They argue that it should be left to competent potential research subjects to make judgments about the acceptability of harms and benefits relating to research, and that this is not a legitimate role for any REC. They allow an exception to their overall antipaternalism, however, in that they think RECs should have the power to prohibit the use of financial inducements to recruit research subjects into trials. In this paper it is argued that these claims are unjustified and implausible. A sketch is provided of an alternative model of the role of the REC as an expert body making judgments about the acceptability of research proposals through a consensual weighing of different moral considerations.

  • REC, research ethics committee
  • research ethics committees
  • harm
  • inducements
  • paternalism

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  • i We deliberately refer to research subjects and not participants. This is because we believe that the term “subjects” actually gives a closer approximation to what it is like to be a patient involved in a research project. In addition, the term “participant” is unclear since, technically, medical researchers are also research participants.

  • ii For an excellent discussion of different conceptions of exploitation and related ethical issues see Bodies for Sale: Ethics & Exploitation in the Human Body Trade by Wilkinson.12

  • iii A full treatment of the authority and legitimacy of RECs would of course take more space than is available here.

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