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Research ethics committees: the role of ethics in a regulatory authority
  1. S McGuinness
  1. Miss S McGuinness, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, School of Law, University of Manchester, Williamson Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK; sheelagh.mcguinness{at}


This paper is an examination of how research ethics committees have evolved from being advisory committees to more formal regulatory authorities. It is argued that the role of ethics committees should be broader than simple ethical review. Inconsistency in outcome should not be taken to signal failure. Procedural fairness is of the utmost importance. Nor should ethics committees be seen to diminish the ethical responsibilities of researchers themselves.

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  • Competing interests: None.

  • i Take, for example the following, from the ESRC Research Ethics Framework: “If referees or assessors disagree with the proposed ethical review, this will either be grounds for rejection of an application where it calls into question researcher competence or the feasibility or validity of their proposal, or for a conditional award requiring further review” (p2).6 It is clear that this allows for many other issues to give rise to rejection of research than just ethical issues.

  • ii Later on I mention how, similarly, subjectivity with regard to ethical viewpoints will have the same effect.

  • iii How the role of the ethicist is defined is open to many interpretations. For example, it could be suggested that an ethicist should be an individual who has undergone formal ethical training. Alternatively, the role could simply be given to an individual whom the committee appoints to act as an ethicist, with requirement that reasons be provided for thinking the person suitable.

  • iv An examination of the role of citizens’ juries within the healthcare system is beyond the scope of this paper. However, for an illustration of some of the issues in other contexts, see articles by Price17 and Syrett18.