Special Communication
May 24/31, 2000

What Makes Clinical Research Ethical?

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Clinical Bioethics, Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

JAMA. 2000;283(20):2701-2711. doi:10.1001/jama.283.20.2701

Many believe that informed consent makes clinical research ethical. However, informed consent is neither necessary nor sufficient for ethical clinical research. Drawing on the basic philosophies underlying major codes, declarations, and other documents relevant to research with human subjects, we propose 7 requirements that systematically elucidate a coherent framework for evaluating the ethics of clinical research studies: (1) value—enhancements of health or knowledge must be derived from the research; (2) scientific validity—the research must be methodologically rigorous; (3) fair subject selection—scientific objectives, not vulnerability or privilege, and the potential for and distribution of risks and benefits, should determine communities selected as study sites and the inclusion criteria for individual subjects; (4) favorable risk-benefit ratio—within the context of standard clinical practice and the research protocol, risks must be minimized, potential benefits enhanced, and the potential benefits to individuals and knowledge gained for society must outweigh the risks; (5) independent review—unaffiliated individuals must review the research and approve, amend, or terminate it; (6) informed consent—individuals should be informed about the research and provide their voluntary consent; and (7) respect for enrolled subjects—subjects should have their privacy protected, the opportunity to withdraw, and their well-being monitored. Fulfilling all 7 requirements is necessary and sufficient to make clinical research ethical. These requirements are universal, although they must be adapted to the health, economic, cultural, and technological conditions in which clinical research is conducted.