An article was submitted for publication. This was a survey of research activity in a specialist area and included, among other things, research funding amounts from each institution. This led to a sort of 'league table'. The information was provided by the responding director of the specialty area or head of school/research group of each institution. The cover letter stated this is for research purposes. No particular ethics approval was sought for the study as it was based on staff/professionals and most were known to the principal author.
The question is whether these data on amount of funding are private or public. While grant income data can be available in funders' websites/reports or the institutional/departmental websites, certainly it exists in Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) reports that are available to the public for past research, this may not be the case for all research grants (ie, industry grants or private donations).
Is research grant income classified as private data (in which case, consent is needed) or it is public data and the cover letter to the study means that returning completed questionnaires implies consent?
The Forum suggested that although the authors may have a responsibility to the individual researchers at the institutions who provided the data, this case appears to relate to institutional data. As there are no individual data, breaching any privacy laws is not an issue. There was some concern from the Forum that the individuals may face disciplinary action by their superiors for supplying the data, but all agreed that this was not really an ethical issue, and there is no ethical principle to protect the institution. Most believed that it did not appear to be a very well-designed study and perhaps the editor should talk to the authors about anonymising their data and broadening the message of the paper. The editor might also like to draw their attention to the potential obligation the authors have to the individual researchers. However, no one suggested that the paper should not be published
The authors were allowed to continue with the submission and the paper is now undergoing peer review.