PLoS Genetics blew it by publishing a 23andme paper
February 21, 2013
As you know, the Boundary Layer blog and citizen-journalist Comradde PhysioProffe have been laying out the case for why institutionally unaffiliated, crowd funded ostensibly open science projects should be careful to adhere to traditional, boring, institutionally hidebound “red tape” procedures when it comes to assuring the ethical use of human subjects in their research.
I raised the parallel case of 23andme at the get go and was mollified by a comment from bsci that 23andme has IRB oversight for their operation. Turns out, they too were brought to this by the peer review process and not by any inherent professionalism or appreciation on the part of the company participants.
The first issue that attracted our attention was that the initial submission lacked a document indicating that the study had passed review by an institutional review board (IRB). The authors responded by submitting a report, obtained after the initial round of review, from the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs (AAHRPP)–accredited company Independent Review Consulting, Inc. (IRC: San Anselmo, CA), exempting them from review on the basis that their activity is “not human subjects research.” On the face of it, this seems preposterous, but on further review, this decision follows not uncommon practices by most scientists and institutional review boards, both academic and commercial, and is based on a guidance statement from the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Human Research Protection (http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/cdebiol.htm). Specifically (and as documented in part C2 of the IRC report), there are two criteria that must be met in order to determine that a study involves human subjects research: will the investigators obtain the data through intervention or interaction with the participants, and will the identity of the subject be readily ascertained by the investigator or associated with the information. For the 23andMe study, the answer to both tests was “no,” ostensibly because there was never any interpersonal contact between investigator and participant (that is, data and samples are provided without participants meeting any investigator), and the participant names are anonymous with respect to the data seen by the investigators. It follows from the logic of the IRC review, in accordance with the OHRP guidance documents, that this study does not involve human subjects research.
The journal should never have accepted this article for publication. I find no mention of ethics regarding the use of human or nonhuman vertebrate animals on their guidelines for authors page but it is over here on their Policies page.
Research involving human participants. All research involving human participants must have been approved by the authors’ institutional review board or equivalent committee(s), and that board must be named in the manuscript. For research involving human participants, informed consent must have been obtained (or the reason for lack of consent explained — for example, that the data were analyzed anonymously) and all clinical investigation must have been conducted according to the principles expressed in the Declaration of Helsinki. Authors should be able to submit, upon request, a statement from the research ethics committee or institutional review board indicating approval of the research. PLOS editors also encourage authors to submit a sample of a patient consent form, and might require submission on particular occasions.
Obviously, the journal decided to stand on a post-hoc IRB decision that the work in question was not ever “involving human participants” in the first place. This is not acceptable to me.
The reason why is that any reasonable professional involved with anything like this would understand the potential human subjects concern. Once there is that potential than the only possible ethical way forward is to seek external review by an IRB or IRB-like body. [ It has been a while since I kicked up a stink about “silly little internet polls” back in the Sb days. For those new to the blog, I went so far as to get a ruling from my IRB (informal true, but I retain the email) on the polls that I might put up.] Obviously, the 23andme folks were able to do so……after the journal made them. So there is no reason they could not have done so at the start. They overlooked their professional responsibility. Getting permission after the fact is simply not the way things work.
Imagine if in animal subjects research we were to just go ahead and do whatever we wanted and only at the point of publishing the paper try to obtain approval for only those data that we chose to include in that manuscript. Are you kidding me?
Ethical review processes are not there only to certify each paper. They are there to keep the entire enterprise of research using human or nonhuman vertebrate animals as ethical, humane, responsible etc as is possible.
This is why hairsplitting about “controlling legal authority” when it comes to academic professionals really angers me. We work within these ethical “constraints” (“red tape” as some wag on the Twitts put it) for good reasons and we should fully accept and adopt them. Not put up with them grudgingly, as an irritation, and look for every possible avenue to get ourselves out from under them. We don’t leave our professionalism behind when we leave the confines of our University. Ever. We leave it behind when we leave our profession (and some might even suggest our common-decency-humanity) behind.
Somehow I don’t think these crowdfunders claim to be doing that.