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BMC Med Ethics. 2016 Jan 5;17:1. doi: 10.1186/s12910-015-0083-z.

Collective agency and the concept of 'public' in public involvement: A practice-oriented analysis.

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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Institute for History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine, Am Pulverturm 13, 55131, Mainz, Germany.
Hannover Medical School, Institute for History, Ethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Carl-Neuberg-Str. 1, 30625, Hannover, Germany.
Hannover Medical School, Institute for History, Ethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Carl-Neuberg-Str. 1, 30625, Hannover, Germany.



Public involvement activities are promoted as measures for ensuring good governance in challenging fields, such as biomedical research and innovation. Proponents of public involvement activities include individual researchers as well as non-governmental and governmental organizations. However, the concept of 'public' in public involvement deserves more attention by researchers because it is not purely theoretical: it has important practical functions in the guidance, evaluation and translation of public involvement activities.


This article focuses on collective agency as one property a public as a small group of participants in a public involvement activity could exhibit. It introduces a prominent theoretical approach to collective agents as one specific kind of social entities and demonstrates how this approach can be applied to current practice in public involvement activities. A brief discussion of different types of representation as they are used in the existing literature on this topic is also included because representation and collective agency can be closely related to each other. Suggestions and ideas that are derived from this reasoning include the proposal to use a 'validity check' for the generation of collective agents as a regular element of certain types of public involvement activities, the consequences of combining collective agency and representativeness as a further property a public could exhibit, and standards for reporting the content of public involvement activities in scientific publications. This article discusses the importance of the concept of 'public' in public involvement activities, with a focus on biomedical research and innovation. It introduces various practically relevant ideas that are based on a theoretical analysis of collective agency as an important property a public can possess.

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