A questionnaire was distributed to knowledge workers in an organisation to investigate the following hypotheses:
— H1.There is a positive and significant relationship between ethics and organizational performance.
— H2. There is a positive and significant relationship between ethics and intellectual capital.
— H3. There is a positive and significant relationship between intellectual capital and organizational performance.
Partly due to the very high rate of response (148/160), consecutive queries were made to the authors about the procedures for subject consent.
Our most recent (and direct) query was: "What we need to know more about is what was done to protect the interests of the individuals who were surveyed. Was there any inducement for them to take part (for example, a reward, or a punishment for not doing so)? Did you collect any consent forms from those individuals? What did they say (please supply a translation as an additional document)? Were any reassurances made to them, or is there a possibility that giving an answer that managers, the government or religious authorities don't like could result in harm for the individual? If there are possibilities of harm were the 160 individuals surveyed warned about them? How? Were they told what the data would be used for? What were they told? When you have amended the paper to give some indication and can supply a (translated) consent form, please visit the instructions to authors to complete your submission".
In response to these queries the following reply was received. "We have set a cover letter in the first part of questionnaire which included the following items: the questionnaire was developed without any name and individual information. As discussed before during the learning programs within the organization, strong attention and commitment to ethical issues are important to reach organizational objectives. Considering the importance of both ethics and IC, the ultimate goal of this study is to explore the relationship between them, and finally their impact on organizational performance. The result of this research will be published by considering privacy issues. It is important to note that the organization’s management has a strong commitment to the above noted subjects. Besides a non-valuable reward, the most important incentive for employees’ participation is that they are in this believed that their organization should be pioneer in comparison with their competitors. Due to being knowledge-based organization, employees have actively participated in such studies, and also they have perceived their positive outcome well, accordingly involving in such studies was accepted as a common subject in that organization".
It thus appears that no consent forms were collected and nothing was said about possible harm to participants. There is no assurance that they were able to answer freely.
Given the wider context of the research, do human research ethics constitute a barrier to publication of this paper?
The Forum confirmed that consent forms are not necessary if the questionnaires are anonymous. Ideally, the authors should produce an “ethical reviewer waiver” so that the editor knows that an expert has looked over the protocol and deemed that ethics approval is not required. If the study was conducted at a university, then there should be a university ethics committee. If the editor decides to publish the paper, he could write a note saying that this paper does not have any ethical oversight. But if the editor still has some concerns, he could consider contacting the authors again for more information, and writing out in a very clear way the questions that he requires answers to.
The editor followed the advice of the COPE Forum. However, when peer-reviewed, the reviewers’ decision was 'reject', so the paper was rejected.