Justice in human research ethics: a conceptual and practical guide
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One of the core values to be applied by a body reviewing the ethics of human research is justice. The inclusion of justice as a requirement in the ethical review of human research is relatively recent and its utility had been largely unexamined until debates arose about the conduct of international biomedical research in the late 1990s. The subsequent amendment of authoritative documents in ways that appeared to shift the meaning of conceptions of justice generated a great deal of controversy. Another difficulty has been that both the theory and the substance of justice that are applied by researchers or reviewers can be frequently seen to be subjective. Both the concept of justice - whether distributive or commutative - and what counts as a just distribution or exchange - are given different weight and meanings by different people. In this paper, the origins and more recent debates about the requirement to consider justice as a criterion in the ethical review of human research are traced, relevant conceptions of justice are distinguished, and the manner in which they can be applied meaningfully in the ethical review of all human research is identified. We also explain the way that these concepts are articulated in, and the intent and function of, specific paragraphs of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007). The National Statement identifies a number of issues that should be considered when a human research ethics committee is reviewing the justice aspects of an application. We provide guidance to researchers as to how they can show that there is a fair distribution of burdens and benefits in the participant experience and the research outcomes. We also provide practical guidance to researchers on how to think through issues of justice so that they can demonstrate that the design of their research projects meets this ethical requirement.