I received a submission that had asked a series of questions of visitors to a website about a mental health issue. It was reviewed by a senior colleague and myself. While the science was fine we were both concerned that no mention had been made of any ethics approval. I raised this issue with the authors, especially given that deception was involved.
The authors then appear to have sought ethics approval from their institutional committee. The committee appears to have granted approval with the proviso that a notice be placed on the website indicating that the material from the questionnaires was to be employed in research, not in supporting the activities promoted by the website, as first indicated. The notice was to remain up for 3 weeks so that any of the participants could ask for their responses to be deleted from the study. No one asked that this be done.
We have discussed this issue 'in-house'. It has been suggested that publication is not necessarily precluded given that the institutional review board has approved the study and required the authors to notify participants of their intentions. Of course, the institutional review board and the authors would need to be able to produce full documentation relating to the submission and approval of the project.
We would be grateful for COPE's advice on this issue.
As mentioned many times at the COPE Forum, just because a study has been approved by an institutional review board does not mean that the editor has to consider it to be ethical or to publish it. Also, institutional review board approval does not guarantee that the study is not flawed.
Some questioned what kind of an institution would approve such a study in vulnerable patients. Others argued that they would not publish this study – the population was not fully informed of the study and so the research is misleading. It is unethical research in a vulnerable population.
The advice was not to publish the paper and write to the author telling him why. Another suggestion was to write to the ethics committee and ask why they approved the study.
The editor wrote to the authors with the Forum’s comments and indicated that the journal would not publish their paper and that they should not attempt to seek to publish it elsewhere. The authors have not replied.