Rethinking research ethics

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Contemporary research ethics policies started with reflection on the atrocities perpetrated upon concentration camp inmates by Nazi doctors. Apparently, as a consequence of that experience, the policies that now guide human subject research focus on the protection of human subjects by making informed consent the centerpiece of regulatory attention. I take the choice of context for policy design, the initial prioritization of informed consent, and several associated conceptual missteps, to have set research ethics off in the wrong direction. The aim of this paper is to sort out these confusions and their implications and to offer instead a straightforward framework for considering the ethical conduct of human subject research. In the course of this discussion I clarify different senses of autonomy that have been confounded and present more intelligible justifications for informed consent. I also take issue with several of the now accepted dogmas that govern research ethics. These include: the primacy of informed consent, the protection of the vulnerable, the substitution of beneficence for research's social purpose, and the introduction of an untenable distinction between innovation and research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-28
Number of pages22
JournalAmerican Journal of Bioethics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2005


  • Autonomy
  • Beneficence
  • Ethics
  • Informed consent
  • Research
  • Social purpose
  • Vulnerable


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