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HEC Forum. 2014 Jun;26(2):169-80. doi: 10.1007/s10730-013-9232-2.

Undergraduate research involving human subjects should not be granted ethical approval unless it is likely to be of publishable quality.

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  • 1Department of Pharmacy, University of Hertfordshire, College Lane, Hatfield, AL10 9AB, UK,


Small-scale research projects involving human subjects have been identified as being effective in developing critical appraisal skills in undergraduate students. In deciding whether to grant ethical approval to such projects, university research ethics committees must weigh the benefits of the research against the risk of harm or discomfort to the participants. As the learning objectives associated with student research can be met without the need for human subjects, the benefit associated with training new healthcare professionals cannot, in itself, justify such risks. The outputs of research must be shared with the wider scientific community if it is to influence future practice. Our survey of 19 UK universities indicates that undergraduate dissertations associated with the disciplines of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy are not routinely retained in their library catalogues, thus closing a major avenue to the dissemination of their findings. If such research is unlikely to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, presented at a conference, or otherwise made available to other researchers, then the risks of harm, discomfort or inconvenience to participants are unlikely to be offset by societal benefits. Ethics committees should be satisfied that undergraduate research will be funnelled into further research that is likely to inform clinical practice before granting ethical approval.

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