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Institutions as an ethical locus of research prioritisation
  1. Luke Gelinas1,
  2. Holly Fernandez Lynch2,
  3. Barbara Bierer3,
  4. I Glenn Cohen4
  1. 1Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, USA
  2. 2Harvard Law School, Petrie-Flom Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  3. 3Multi-Regional Clinical Trials Center at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  4. 4Harvard Law School Ringgold standard institution, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Luke Gelinas, Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School, 23 Everett St. 3rd floor, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; lgelinas{at}

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Ensuring that clinical trials, once launched, successfully complete and generate useful knowledge is an important and indeed ethically imperative goal, given the risks and burdens borne by research participants. Since there are insufficient willing research participants to power all the trials that are currently undertaken,1 addressing underenrolment will require prioritisation decisions that reduce the number of trials competing for participants. While there are multiple levels at which research priority-setting can and does take place, competition between trials often plays out in real time at the institutional or site level, where complex decisions must be made about how to manage overlapping trials in ways that balance different considerations, including the risk of non-completion. We sought to explore what research institutions in particular might ethically do to mitigate the risk that competition between trials will contribute to recruitment shortfalls.

Against this backdrop, we appreciate the thoughtful replies to our article and are especially encouraged that all three respondents acknowledge the importance and indeed necessity of setting research priorities in ways that respect the rights and interests of various parties. The key question raised by the commentaries primarily concerns not whether research prioritisation should take place but rather how it is best accomplished. In what follows, we clarify our argument in the original article, and then focus on several points raised in the commentaries regarding the role of institutions in research priority-setting.

Our approach is animated by the risk that competition between clinical trials for the same population of participants can be a cause of underenrolment when there are insufficient participants to meet the statistical needs of all open studies. In such situations, one or more of the competing studies will fail to meet recruitment targets, reducing their statistical ability to answer the research question. There are strong ethical reasons to avoid …

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  • Contributors All four authors meet the criteria set out in ICMJE Recommendations 2013. IGC oversaw the project, LG took the lead and spent the most in terms of time, energy, ideas, suggestions for revisions and so on, with HFL and BEB second and third on that count.

  • Funding National Center for Research Resources and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health (Award UL1 TR001102).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i Although it is worth noting that, by reducing the absolute number of overlapping trials among all sites, institutional prioritisation will thereby reduce (though not eliminate) competition between sites, in addition to reducing competition at the same site.

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