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Feature Article
(Mis)Understanding Exploitation

The term “exploitation” is notoriously hard to define. Yet it is frequently invoked to frame moral concerns about clinical research. Recently, a group of influential authors have proposed a so-called nonexploitation framework for the ethics of randomized controlled trials that appears to address these concerns. This article challenges one basic assumption of that framework: the idea that nonexploitation in research requires participants to be protected from excessive risks, which are understood to be risks that are not outweighed by the benefits that the research is expected to lead to. Examples of exploitation in other contexts show that this idea has highly counterintuitive implications. The result is that the nonexploitation framework obscures concerns about exploitation in biomedical research, rather than clarifying them.

 

Key words/concepts: biomedical research, research ethics, exploitation, randomized controlled trials, risks and benefits, the nonexploitation framework

The term “exploitation” is notoriously hard to define. Yet it is frequently invoked to frame moral concerns about clinical research. Recently, a group of influential authors have proposed a so-called nonexploitation framework for the ethics of randomized controlled trials that appears to address these concerns. This article challenges one basic assumption of that framework: the idea that nonexploitation in research requires participants to be protected from excessive risks, which are understood to be risks that are not outweighed by the benefits that the research is expected to lead to. Examples of exploitation in other contexts show that this idea has highly counterintuitive implications. The result is that the nonexploitation framework obscures concerns about exploitation in biomedical research, rather than clarifying them.

 

Key words/concepts: biomedical research, research ethics, exploitation, randomized controlled trials, risks and benefits, the nonexploitation framework

Erik Malmqvist, "(Mis)Understanding Exploitation," IRB: Ethics & Human Research 33, no. 2 (2011): 1-5.