As editor of a psychology journal, I received a manuscript from a group of scholars. The authors describe a qualitative online study with adolescent girls, aged 15–18 years, who met in person with a stranger they first ‘met’ online. The girls describe their reasoning about the risks, the safety measures they used and reactions to discomfort they experienced in the meetings.
The authors noted on our required information form that they “Confirm that all the research meets the ethical guidelines, including adherence to the legal requirements of the study country.” They also note in their cover letter that the paper conforms to APA (American Psychological Association) standards.
In the paper, the authors note that “parental consent was not required” because “all of the participants were older than 15 at the time of the interview, which is the legal age in the country where the study was performed”.
Because they identified the source of a number of quotations from the interviews that they conducted as being from 15 year olds, I contacted the first author for clarification. I also asked where the statute is listed that states 15 years as the age of consent in your country and also asked if the study was reviewed by an ethical review board.
The author confirmed that the legal age is 15 years and the sentence should have read “all the participants were 15 years old or older.” They agreed to correct the paper. They stated 15 years was set in the project as the age where they would not require parental consent, but the youths themselves were informed about the procedure as well as their rights and agreed to participate. They said the law does not require informed consent when personal data (ie, data that could directly connect the information collected to the specific person) are not being gathered and stored during the process (with the exception of biomedical research). Hence institutional review board approval was not required and the project was therefore not reviewed by an ethical board. However, the project proposal contained a detailed description of the procedure, including the ethical aspects. The project proposal was approved by a university, and evaluated, approved and funded by a grant agency.
My concern is about the age of the participants. Does the Forum have a recommendation regarding the requirements for parental approval for participants as young as 15 years, even if the legal age of consent is 15?
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What is COPE's position on research on 15–18 year olds without parental permission in a country where the legal age of consent is 15 years?
The Forum suggested there are two issues here: the age of legal consent without parental approval and the ethical issue.
While the study has institutional backing, some of the Forum were of the opinion that the study should have been reviewed by an institutional review board. Only an institutional review board or an ethical board can judge whether or not consent should have been obtained.
One view was that parents should have been informed for the younger aged participants (15 and 16 year olds). However, another view was that the benefits outweigh the risks, and that if the parents had been informed, that may have prevented the participants taking part in the study. The age of consent varies widely in different countries. If participants are over the age of consent for that particular country and the study was done according to national standards, then the authors should be allowed to publish. A suggestion was that if the paper is accepted for publication, the editor could put a statement or note on the paper around the issue of consent, in the cultural context. It may also be useful for the editor to write an editorial comment as readers may also have similar questions.
Since many journals have international authors, should the onus be on editors if there is lack of clarity to confirm the norms elsewhere. Do we need universal standards for issues like this?
The reviews for the article were returned and the article was rejected based on the merit of the paper. The matter regarding this specific submission is closed. The authors followed the letter of the law in their country, but the editor still wonders if there should be a universal age for consent of minors, without parental approval. There are many sides to the issue.