Bioethics for Clinicians: 10. Research Ethics

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Canadian Medical Association Journal





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Medical research involving human subjects raises complex ethical, legal and social issues. Investigators sometimes find that their obligations with respect to a research project come into conflict with their obligations to individual patients. The ethical conduct of research rests on 3 guiding principles: respect for persons, beneficience, and justice. Respect for persons underlies the duty to obtain informed consent from study participants. Beneficence demands a favourable balance between the potential benefits and harms of participation. Justice requires that vulnerable people not be exploited and that eligible candidates who may benefit from participation not be excluded without good cause. Studies must be designed in a way that ensures the validity of findings and must address questions of sufficient importance to justify the risks of participation. In any clinical trial there must be genuine uncertainty as to which treatment arm offers the most benefit, and placebo controls should not be used if effective standard therapies exist. Researchers have a responsibility to inform themselves about the ethical, legal and policy standards that govern their activities. When difficulties arise, they should consult the existing literature and seek the advice of experts in research ethics.


Reprinted in: Singer PA. (Ed.). Bioethics at the Bedside: A Clinician’s Guide. 1999. 89-97.
Dr. Charles Weijer is currently a faculty member of The University of Western Ontario.