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Understanding Scientific and Research Ethics

How to pass journal ethics checks to ensure a smooth submission and publication process

Reputable journals screen for ethics at submission—and inability to pass ethics checks is one of the most common reasons for rejection. Unfortunately, once a study has begun, it’s often too late to secure the requisite ethical reviews and clearances. Learn how to prepare for publication success by ensuring your study meets all ethical requirements before work begins.

The underlying principles of scientific and research ethics

Scientific and research ethics exist to safeguard human rights, ensure that we treat animals respectfully and humanely, and protect the natural environment.

The specific details may vary widely depending on the type of research you’re conducting, but there are clear themes running through all research and reporting ethical requirements:

  1. Documented 3rd party oversight
  2. Consent and anonymity
  3. Full transparency

If you fulfill each of these broad requirements, your manuscript should sail through any journal’s ethics check.

Documented 3rd party oversight

If your research is 100% theoretical, you might be able to skip this one. But if you work with living organisms in any capacity—whether you’re administering a survey, collecting data from medical records, culturing cells, working with zebrafish, or counting plant species in a ring—oversight and approval by an ethics committee is a prerequisite for publication. This oversight can take many different forms:

For human studies and studies using human tissue or cells, obtain approval from your institutional review board (IRB). Register clinical trials with the World Health Organization (WHO) or International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).

For animal research consult with your institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC). Note that there may be special requirements for non-human primates, cephalopods, and other specific species, as well as for wild animals.

For field studies, anthropology and paleontology, the type of permission required will depend on many factors, like the location of the study, whether the site is publicly or privately owned, possible impacts on endangered or protected species, and local permit requirements. 

TIP: You’re not exempt until your committee tells you so

Even if you think your study probably doesn’t require approval, submit it to the review board anyway. Many journals won’t consider retrospective approvals. Obtaining formal approval or an exemption up front is worth it to ensure your research is eligible for publication in the future.

TIP: Keep your committee records close

Clearly label your IRB/IACUC paperwork, permit numbers, and any participant permission forms (including blank copies), and keep them in a safe place. You will need them when you submit to a journal. Providing these details proactively as part of your initial submission can minimize delays and get your manuscript through journal checks and into the hands of reviewers sooner.

Consent & anonymity

Obtaining consent from human subjects

You may not conduct research on human beings unless the subjects understand what you are doing and agree to be a part of your study. If you work with human subjects, you must obtain informed written consent from the participants or their legal guardians. 

There are many circumstances where extra care may be required in order to obtain consent. The more vulnerable the population you are working with the stricter these guidelines will be. For example, your IRB may have special requirements for working with minors, the elderly, or developmentally delayed participants. Remember that these rules may vary from country to country. Providing a link to the relevant legal reference in your area can help speed the screening and approval process.

TIP: What if you are working with a population where reading and writing aren’t common?

Alternatives to written consent (such as verbal consent or a thumbprint) are acceptable in some cases, but consent still has to be clearly documented. To ensure eligibility for publication, be sure to:

  • Get IRB approval for obtaining verbal rather than written consent
  • Be prepared to explain why written consent could not be obtained
  • Keep a copy of the script you used to obtain this consent, and record when consent was obtained for your own records

Consent and report for human tissue and cell lines

Consent from the participant or their next-of-kin is also required for the use of human tissue and cell lines. This includes discarded tissue, for example the by-products of surgery.  

When working with cell lines transparency and good record keeping are essential. Here are some basic guidelines to bear in mind:

  • When working with established cell lines, cite the published article where the cell line was first described.
  • If you’re using repository or commercial cell lines,  explain exactly which ones, and provide the catalog or repository number. 
  • If you received a cell line from a colleague, rather than directly from a repository or company, be sure to mention it. Explain who gifted the cells and when.
  • For a new cell line obtained from a colleague there may not be a published article to cite yet, but the work to generate the cell line must meet the usual requirements of consent—even if it was carried out by another research group. You’ll need to provide a copy of your colleagues’ IRB approval and details about the consent procedures in order to publish the work.

Anonymity

Finally, you’re obliged to keep your human subjects anonymous and to protect any identifying information in photos and raw data. Remove all names, birth dates, detailed addresses, or job information from files you plan to share. Blur faces and tattoos in any images. Details such as geography (city/country), gender, age, or profession may be shared at a generalized level and in aggregate. Read more about standards for de-identifying datasets in The BMJ.

TIP: Anonymity can be important in field work too

Be careful about revealing geographic data in fieldwork. You don’t want to tip poachers off to the location of the endangered elephant population you studied, or expose petroglyphs to vandalism.

Full Transparency

No matter the discipline, transparent reporting of methods, results, data, software and code is essential to ethical research practice. Transparency is also key to the future reproducibility of your work.

When you submit your study to a journal, you’ll be asked to provide a variety of statements certifying that you’ve obtained the appropriate permissions and clearances, and explaining how you conducted the work. You may also be asked to provide supporting documentation, including field records and raw data. Provide as much detail as you can at this stage. Clear and complete disclosure statements will minimize back-and-forth with the journal, helping your submission to clear ethics checks and move on to the assessment stage sooner.

TIP: Save that data

As you work, be sure to clearly label and organize your data files in a way that will make sense to you later. As close as you are to the work as you conduct your study, remember that two years could easily pass between capturing your data and publishing an article reporting the results. You don’t want to be stuck piecing together confusing records in order to create figures and data files for repositories.

Read our full guide to preparing data for submission. [LINK]

Keep in mind that scientific and research ethics are always evolving. As laws change and as we learn more about influence, implicit bias and animal sentience, the scientific community continues to strive to elevate our research practice.

A checklist to ensure you’re ethics-check ready

Before you begin your research

Obtain approval from your IRB, IACUC or other approving body

Obtain written informed consent from human participants, guardians or next-of-kin

Obtain permits or permission from property owners, or confirm that permits are not required

Label and save all of records

As you work

Adhere strictly to the protocols approved by your committee

Clearly label your data, and store it in a way that will make sense to your future self

As you write, submit and deposit your results

Be ready to cite specific approval organizations, permit numbers, cell lines, and other details in your ethics statement and in the methods section of your manuscript

Anonymize all participant data (including human and in some cases animal or geographic data)

If a figure does include identifying information (e.g. a participant’s face) obtain special consent

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