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An analysis of decision letters by research ethics committees: the ethics/scientific quality boundary examined
  1. E L Angell1,
  2. A Bryman2,
  3. R E Ashcroft3,
  4. M Dixon-Woods1
  1. 1
    Social Science Research Group, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
  2. 2
    School of Management, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
  3. 3
    School of Law, Queen Mary, University of London, London, UK
  1. Professor M Dixon-Woods, Social Science Research Group, Department of Health Sciences, 2nd Floor, Adrian Building, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK; md11{at}


Objectives: The performance of NHS research ethics committees (RECs) is of growing interest. It has been proposed that they confine themselves to “ethical” issues only and not concern themselves with the quality of the science. This study aimed to identify current practices of RECs in relation to scientific issues in research ethics applications.

Methods: Letters written by UK RECs expressing provisional or unfavourable opinions in response to submitted research applications were sampled from the research ethics database held by the Central Office for Research Ethics Committees. Ethnographic content analysis (ECA) was used to develop a coding framework. QSR N6 software was used to facilitate coding.

Results: “Scientific issues” were raised in 104 (74%) of the 141 letters in our sample. The present data suggest that RECs frequently considered scientific issues and that judgments of these often informed their decisions about approval of applications. Current processes of peer review seemed insufficient to reassure RECs about the scientific quality of applications they were asked to review.

Conclusions: This study provides evidence that scientific issues are frequently raised in letters to researchers and are often considered a quality problem by RECs. In the discussion, the authors reflect on how far issues of science can and should be distinguished from those of ethics and the policy implications.

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Ethics approval: Our study was deemed by COREC not to require REC review.

  • This paper was written while M D-W was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.