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Reviewing code consistency is important, but research ethics committees must also make a judgement on scientific justification, methodological approach and competency of the research team
  1. Samantha Trace,
  2. Simon Kolstoe
  1. School of Health Sciences and Social Work, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Simon Kolstoe, School of Health Sciences and Social Work, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth PO1 2FR, UK; simon.kolstoe{at}

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We have followed with interest the commentaries arising from Moore and Donnellys1 argument that authorities in charge of research ethics committees (RECs) should focus primarily on establishing code-consistent reviews.1 We broadly agree with Savulescu’s2 argument that ethics committees should become more expert, but in a different way and for a different reason.

We have recently been working with the UK Health Research Authority (HRA) analysing the outcomes of their ‘Shared Ethical Debate’ (ShED) exercises.3 Each ShED exercise involves the circulation of a single research project to a number of RECs. The resulting minutes from each REC are compared along with the final decisions made by each REC on the project under consideration. This process was originally an administrative exercise designed to promote greater consistency among the 60 or so ethics committees that were brought under the HRA (and previously National Research Ethics Service (NRES)) umbrella within the UK National Health Service. Over 20 ShEDs have been run, and although the process has significant weaknesses and has not always been run consistently, the results of the exercises are fascinating. Broadly speaking, NHS RECs have been getting more consistent over time in terms of their decision-making, but the reasons for the final decisions as described in the committee minutes continue to vary widely. Qualitative research now needs to be done to understand why different committees can have such different discussions in relation to exactly the same research project and yet come to essentially the same conclusion.

As part of our analysis of the ShED data, we looked at …

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  • Contributors SK and ST conducted the supporting work described in this commentary and contributed equally to writing the article.

  • Competing interests SK is chair of the Hampshire A NHS and MOD research ethics committees and is involved with various NHS and MOD projects trying to improve and streamline the ethics review process. ST is a member of the Hampshire B NHS REC and is currently receiving funding for her MRes degree from the Health Research Authority.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Additional information regarding the ShED audits is available in the form of internal reports from the Health Research Authority.

  • Correction notice This article has been corrected since it was published Online First. 'It is not the task of a REC to undertake additional scientific reviewer is it constituted to do so’ was corrected.

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