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Research involving people, their data or tissue, requires proper ethical conduct that respects them and demonstrates responsible conduct which reflects a genuine concern for their betterment and that of the community.
The values of ethical conduct in research include respect for human beings, justice, beneficence, research merit and integrity. Respecting human beings, by recognising everyone’s inherent value and human dignity, ought to govern interactions with research participants. Doing so shows respect for autonomous individuals (who have the capacity to make decisions and determine their own life) and to protect those who are vulnerable and unable to express their autonomy. Justice recognises human equality, which involves fairly distributing the benefits and burdens of research and treating all participants fairly. Beneficence in research involves the consideration and awareness of possible harms and benefits to the participants and their community.
Merit and integrity in research is essential for any research to be ethically justified – research must show that it is a potential benefit to the community by improving understanding or knowledge, that the research is well designed to achieve the proposed aims, is conducted honestly and respectfully, and upholds fundamental medical research principles.
Ethical research must always identify, gauge and minimise any risks that pose a threat to participants and their communities. Risks may be managed or justified by the potential benefit of the research.
Voluntary, non-coerced consent is required, based on a person’s autonomous capacity to be involved in research. This demonstrates that they have made a voluntary choice based on understanding information regarding the study. Some studies may involve participants unable to provide informed consent. These special cases include pregnant women and the human foetus in utero or ex utero, embryos, children and some disabled people. Guidelines for ethical considerations specific to participants can be found in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research 2007 (NHMRC).