Information on competitors participating in a popular sporting activity was obtained from a website in the public domain. The authors used this data to see if the competitors' personal characteristics (height, weight etc.) affected their chances of winning. The editor asked the authors how they obtained consent from the competitors for this study. The authors responded saying that this data was in the public domain and therefore exempt from any requirement for ethics review.
By making their personal data available on a public website have the competitors also accepted that it will be available for medical research?
In this study, the authors were only reporting on basic information, but if they had included conditions/illnesses that these people were known to have, is that a problem?
The committee thought there is a lot of medical information in the public domain without consent. For instance if there was a claim that Kate Moss was anorexic and on drugs would we be shocked if it was included in a discussion on dietary habits? The committee thought that this paper was more for the lay press. If the information is available on a public website there is also the question of how robust the data is. It sounds like a dull paper that is not medical.
This is not an issue. Standards are set by the press complaints commission. The research sounds dull and it should be checked to see if it is robust.
The editor contacted the author and asked him to explain the fact that given that readers may be able to recognise the competitors from the information used, had he obtained consent from them? Alternatively, he was asked if he could provide proof that the study was approved by a recognised ethics committee who explicitly considered and addressed this issue. The editor also questioned the existence of the “website in the public domain” as it could not be accessed.
The author replied that at the time of data collection the website was viable, and the result of each match was posted publically. Since then the site has changed and these data are no longer posted on the website, likely because they are outdated. However, similar data are available from another site containing the same elements as the data used in the author’s study. The author also stated that as these data were in the public domain, the project was exempt from the requirement for ethics review as per the following two guidelines for ethics in human research:
(1) Tri-Council Policy Statement, Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, Canada, 1998, Article 1.1(c) "Research about a living individual involved in the public arena, or about an artist, based exclusively on publicly available information, documents, records, works, performances, archival material or third-party interviews, is not required to undergo ethics review."
(2) OHRP-Code of Federal Regulations 46.101(b)(4): (b) ... the following categories are exempt from this policy: (4) Research involving the collection or study of existing data, documents, records, pathological specimens, or diagnostic specimens, if these sources are publicly available..."
The manuscript was then reviewed. Both referees recommended that the manuscript be rejected as it had has no valid biological question.