Summaries of applications to UK National Health Service Research Ethics Committees (RECs) will be publicly available for the first time this month.

The National Research Ethics Service (NRES), the umbrella body for ethics committees in the NHS, is going live with a special section of its website that will give the general public access to research summaries for clinical trial applications filed with the RECs after 1 May this year. The aim is to have up to 100 summaries available at launch.

According to the NRES, patients will be the main beneficiaries of the initiative, as the increased awareness will make participation in clinical research safer. “Publication will also avoid duplication of research and help ensure that future studies aim to answer new questions and not repeat previous work,” the NRES added.

Publishing the summaries is also part of a broader commitment to research transparency. Last spring, the NRES announced a collaborative project with the James Lind Alliance and the Department of Health to reconcile the Service’s Research Ethics Database (RED) with two existing publicly accessible clinical trial registers, ClinicalTrials.gov and the International Standard Randomised Controlled Trial Number (ISRCTN) Register. This initiative is expected to be completed by the end of 2008.

Also in the pipeline are summaries of ethical opinions. At the moment, noted NRES director Dr Janet Wisely, the Service is evaluating whether it is possible to draft a summary of the ethical opinion from REC minutes.

One problem the NRES needs to deal with is the inconsistency of research summaries in their current form. These are “written in a variety of styles and, for this project to succeed, clarity and consistency will be paramount”, Wisely pointed out. For the time being, the NRES will manage the review of summaries centrally, with a view to developing guidance on standardisation.

The intention is that RECs will eventually be able to review the research summaries “alongside, but separate from” the ethical reviewing process.