Research ethics became of supreme importance after the post-World War II Nuremberg Trial. The atrocities committed by Nazi doctors in the name of research stimulated the development of a code to protect research subjects.

An American federal commission later developed the Belmont Report, which describes ethical principles to be maintained while conducting clinical research. These principles are used in balance of each other, and encapsulate the recommendations of the Nuremberg Code.

Respect for Persons

Respect for autonomy is to be pursued at all times. This entails treating individuals as autonomous agents and protecting those with diminished autonomy. Research subjects must have the opportunity to freely choose what shall or shall not happen to them; this is most readily provided by a proper informed consent procedure.


Ethical treatment of research participants requires making efforts to secure their well being. This entails doing no harm, and maximizing benefits while minimizing harm. The balance of harms and benefits must be systematic and nonarbitrary.


Benefits and harms must be fairly distributed. An injustice occurs when a benefit, to which a person is entitled, is denied without good reason or when some burden is unduly imposed. No group of persons can be assigned a disproportionate amount of risk or benefit unless for reasons directly related to the problem being studied. Research supported by public funds must provide evenly distributed advantages.

The full ramifications of these principles can be found in the complete Belmont Report, which is linked to the HRPO website. Similar and more specific recommendations were made by an international commission, presented in the Declaration of Helsinki.

Content current as of 10/5/2022