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How to read an ethics paper
  1. Melanie Jansen1,2,
  2. Peter Ellerton3
  1. 1Paediatric Intensive Care Unit & Centre for Children’s Health Ethics and Law, Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service, South Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
  2. 2Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland, Herston, Queensland, Australia
  3. 3Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Melanie Jansen, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit & Centre for Children’s Health Ethics and Law, Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service, Brisbane, QLD 4101, Australia; doctormjansen{at}


In recent decades, evidence-based medicine has become one of the foundations of clinical practice, making it necessary that healthcare practitioners develop keen critical appraisal skills for scientific papers. Worksheets to guide clinicians through this critical appraisal are often used in journal clubs, a key part of continuing medical education. A similar need is arising for health professionals to develop skills in the critical appraisal of medical ethics papers. Medicine is increasingly ethically complex, and there is a growing medical ethics literature that modern practitioners need to be able to use in their practice. In addition, clinical ethics services are commonplace in healthcare institutions, and the lion’s share of the work done by these services is done by clinicians in addition to their usual roles. Education to support this work is important. In this paper, we present a worksheet designed to help busy healthcare practitioners critically appraise ethics papers relevant to clinical practice. In the first section, we explain what is different about ethics papers. We then describe how to work through the steps in our critical appraisal worksheet: identifying the point at issue; scrutinising definitions; dissecting the arguments presented; considering counterarguments; and finally deciding on relevance. Working through this reflective worksheet will help healthcare practitioners to use the ethics literature effectively in clinical practice. We also intend it to be a shared evaluative tool that can form the basis of professional discussion such as at ethics journal clubs. Practising these critical reasoning skills will also increase practitioners’ capacity to think through difficult ethical decisions in daily clinical practice.

  • clinical ethics
  • education for health care professionals

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  • Contributors MJ conceived the idea of the critical appraisal worksheet for clinicians. PE assisted in developing the idea and refining the worksheet. MJ wrote the initial draft of the manuscript. PE and MJ were both involved in draft review and development of the final version of the manuscript. MJ is the guarantor of this article.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Disclaimer The views expressed in this paper are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their institutions.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

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

  • Data sharing statement No additional data are available.

  • Author note MJ is a medical doctor in intensive care medicine and has additional qualifications and experience in clinical ethics. She co-led the working group to establish the Centre for Children’s Health Ethics and Law at Children’s Health Queensland, and was the centre’s inaugural Clinical Ethics Fellow. MJ recently completed a Churchill Fellowship in clinical ethics. She has published both empirical research and analysis pieces on healthcare ethics issues. PE is a science educator and philosopher, and is the Curriculum Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project. He is an expert in critical thinking and argumentation and has published on these topics in a number of contexts.

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