Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

Editorials Christmas 2010: Editorial

Self experimentation and the Nuremberg Code

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c7103 (Published 15 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c7103

Rapid Response:

Ethics are difficult to define

Professor Annas's editorial demonstrates the difficulties in defining
research ethics.

I disagree that Groves' study was not research. (1) The argument that
he "was not seeking generalisable knowledge by testing a hypothesis" seems
incorrect.

Groves' introduction states the hypothesis: "Those in the know
suggested a new bike could knock 10% off" [the commuting time] sic, while
the objective states the generalisable knowledge he was seeking: "To
determine whether the author's 20.9 lb (9.5 kg) carbon frame bicycle
reduced commuting time compared with his 29.75 lb (13.5 kg) steel frame
bicycle."

So on the face of it Groves has fallen faul of the ethics committee
guidelines. I trust he is not an NHS organisation so the guidelines,
strictly speaking, would not apply to him. This reasoning would not
exonerate the BMJ though.

However, the main reason why the ethics committee guidance would not
apply is that Groves was using data that had been generated in any case,
and as such it was probably definable as a service evaluation under the UK
ethical committee guidelines.

It goes to show the ethical committee guidelines are missing one
vital component, a 'you're having a laugh, right?' clause. This should
exempt any researcher from the onerous process of obtaining ethical
approval when common sense should prevail.

(1) Groves J. Bicycle weight and commuting time: randomised trial.
BMJ 2010; 341:c6801
http://www.bmj.com/content/341/bmj.c6801.full

Competing interests: HB abandoned a research project as the ethical committee indicated we should obtain consent from approx. 30 PCTs to be allowed to post a questionnaire to approx. 50 GPs asking if they understood the way their global sum was calculated. Even if we had obtained the consent, the insurance purchased for the project was deemed insufficient without any indication why it was deemed to be so.

24 December 2010
Hendrik J Beerstecher
gp principal
111 Canterbury Road, Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10 4JA