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Should research ethics committees meet in public?
  1. M Sheehan
  1. Dr M Sheehan, Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences, Faculty of Philosophy and James Martin 21st Century School, University of Oxford, Littlegate House, 16/17 St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK; mark.sheehan{at}


Currently, research ethics committees (RECs) in the UK meet behind closed doors—their workings and most of the content of their decisions are unavailable to the general public. There is a significant tension between this current practice and a broader societal presumption of openness. As a form of public institution, the REC system exists to oversee research from the perspective of society generally.

An important part of this tension turns on the kind of justification that might be offered for the REC system. In this paper I adapt Daniels and Sabin’s accountability for reasonableness model for just resource allocation to the research ethics context to provide some structural legitimacy and to enable progress on the question of openness. After considering the consequences of adopting this model for open REC meetings, I then examine some reasons that might be offered against open meetings. These arguments do not overwhelm the core intuitions behind the presumption of openness but they do, I suggest, give us reason to retreat from fully public meetings. I conclude that there should be important adjustments to the system towards public accountability and that there are grounds for stopping short of fully public meetings.

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  • Competing interests: None.

  • i There are various different reporting mechanisms required and mentioned in the Standard Operating Procedures and Governance arrangements for NHS Research Ethics Committees (GafREC), aside from annual reports.1 2

  • ii In what follows I am not committed to the details of the Daniels and Sabin model and its straightforward application to the research context but I do think that something like this model will work. For some relevant concerns with the Daniels and Sabin model, see Hasman and Holm.4

  • iii Notice that meetings that are open to the public are not thereby accountable or publicly accountable

  • iv See also, GafREC.2

  • v In this discussion I set aside the issue of expertise. Expert members are, I presume, not members solely for their expertise—the input of the statistician is not limited to statistics.