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Centralised, compliance-focused approaches to research ethics have been normalised in practice. In this paper, we argue that the dominance of such systems has been driven by neoliberal approaches to governance, where the focus on controlling and individualising risk has led to an overemphasis of decontextualised ethical principles and the conflation of ethical requirements with the documentation of ‘informed consent’. Using a UK-based case study, involving a point-of-care-genetic test as an illustration, we argue that rather than ensuring ethical practice such compliance-focused approaches may obstruct valuable research. We call for an approach that encourages researchers and research communities—including regulators, ethics committees, funders and publishers of academic research—to acquire skills to make morally appropriate decisions, and not base decision-making solely on compliance with prescriptive regulations. We call this ‘ethical preparedness’ and outline how a research ethics system might make space for this approach.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Medical Ethics



Publication Date





352 - 356