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Open Access Debate

Benefit sharing: an exploration on the contextual discourse of a changing concept

Bege Dauda and Kris Dierickx*

Author Affiliations

Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Faculty of Medicine KU Leuven, Kapucijnenvoer 35, Box 7001, Leuven B-3000, Belgium

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BMC Medical Ethics 2013, 14:36  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-14-36

Published: 12 September 2013



The concept of benefit sharing has been a topical issue on the international stage for more than two decades, gaining prominence in international law, research ethics and political philosophy. In spite of this prominence, the concept of benefit sharing is not devoid of controversies related to its definition and justification. This article examines the discourses and justifications of benefit sharing concept.


We examine the discourse on benefit sharing within three main spheres; namely: common heritage of humankind, access and use of genetic resources according to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and international clinical research. Benefit sharing has change from a concept that is enshrined in a legally binding regulation in the contexts of common heritage of humankind and CBD to a non-binding regulation in international clinical research. Nonetheless, there are more ethical justifications that accentuate benefit sharing in international clinical research than in the contexts of common heritage of humankind and the CBD.


There is a need to develop a legal framework in order to strengthen the advocacy and decisiveness of benefit sharing practice in international health research. Based on this legal framework, research sponsors would be required to provide a minimum set of possible benefits to participants and communities in research. Such legal framework on benefit sharing will encourage research collaboration with local communities; and dispel mistrust between research sponsors and host communities. However, more research is needed—drawing from other international legal frameworks, to understand how such a legal framework on benefit sharing can be successfully formulated in international health research.

Benefit sharing; Research ethics; International research; Common heritage of humankind; Biodiversity; Justice; Developing countries