Education And Debate

Ethics behind closed doors: do research ethics committees need secrecy?

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 26 May 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1294
  1. Richard Ashcroft, lecturer in medical ethics (,
  2. Naomi Pfeffer, professor of social and historical studies of healthb
  1. a Imperial College School of Medicine, Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, London W2 1PG
  2. b School of Community Health, Psychology and Social Work, University of North London, London N5 2AD
  1. Correspondence to: R Ashcroft
  • Accepted 19 February 2001

Biomedical research involving human subjects must be reviewed by an independent ethics committee.13 In the United Kingdom, such committees are normally NHS local or multicentre research ethics committees.46 There is currently widespread frustration in the research community, in the regulatory authorities, and in the pharmaceutical industry with the efficiency of such committees. 7 8 At the same time there are doubts about the effectiveness of these independent committees in protecting patients.911 Doubts have arisen in the aftermath of some high profile scandals in the ethics of research in the United Kingdom and United States.12 13 Guidance on research governance within the public sector to parallel governance within the pharmaceutical industry is therefore welcome. 2 6 14

An important reason for the contention surrounding research ethics committees is the secrecy that surrounds them and their decision making. We argue that this secrecy is rarely justified. To investigate this, we reviewed the guidelines regulating research ethics committees in common law jurisdictions and searched the literature on research ethics committees.

Summary points

Research ethics committees have a vital role in protecting the public and facilitating useful research but are increasingly under attack

In many countries, including the United Kingdom, research ethics committees meet confidentially, but no justification for this is normally offered

The possible justifications (protection of patients', researchers', commercial, or academic interests and the committee's independence) are weak and unconvincing

The minutes and meetings of research ethics committees should be open to the public except in a few special circumstances

Maintaining independence

Independence of review is an important element of good research governance. This is partly protected by lay membership of committees, clear lines of accountability to public authorities, and strict rules relating to conflicts of interest. However, this protection of patients' interests may …

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