Ethics Consultation

March 27, 2012

Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics Faculty Provide Members of the Johns Hopkins Community With Free, Confidential Research Ethics Advice


When it launched in March 2005, the Research Ethics Consulting Service (RECS) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was a new experiment in extending ethics consultation—typically related to clinical issues—to the research setting.


“Our goal was to help raise awareness of, and to assist investigators in resolving, ethical issues in research where a there was a void of independent, one-on-one consultation available,” says Holly Taylor, Ph.D., M.P.H., a core faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics (BI) and the co-founder and coordinator of RECS.


It was quickly evident the demand existed, and seven years later the program has expanded both its consultants and scope, now serving faculty, staff, trainees and students from the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, Public Health, Engineering and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.  The service is provided for free by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and BI.  Staff members and students are asked to apply through their faculty advisor or principal investigator.


“Over the years we’ve tackled some ethically complex, challenging cases,” says Nancy Kass, ScD, who founded RECS with Taylor and continues to serve as a consultant and community liaison.  While the service is confidential, the consultants were able to share generalized examples of questions that have been posed through the RECS online submission form.  In a review of the program-to-date in 2009 in the journal IRB: Ethics and Human Research, Taylor and Kass wrote, “consultations involved research with hidden populations in conflict ridden regions of the globe; research with minority adolescents at risk of suicide; or studies where the state of evidence was both in flux and contested.” Other submissions have looked for help responding to feedback from an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or NIH Study Section.


Researchers dealing with these and other ethical concerns receive consultation in-person or by phone or email if necessary.  Requests for consultation can be made at any point in the research process – during study development, conduct, analysis, or publication. Consultants, all of whom are faculty members of the BI, provide relevant literature, links to relevant IRB policy memos, and other resources.


However, Taylor notes that RECS provides consultation only, and researchers are still responsible for their choices, and of course applying for and obtaining IRB approval.  “RECS is intended to supplement rather than supplant the services and expertise provided by the Office for Research Subjects and Institutional Review boards at the school,” Taylor says.


“We want people at Johns Hopkins, whether they are faculty, staff or students, to know that there is a place where they can come, free of charge, to talk through the ethics challenges they face in their research.  It is our goal to help them devise the best strategy for navigating the challenges that come up in their work,” says Kass.

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Holly Taylor
Leah Ramsay
Nancy Kass

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