I am from Computer Science (CS) doing microscopy imaging applications, mainly in software side.

Recently we submitted a paper to Scientific Reports on a new algorithm. My own human blood cells (a few tiny drops of blood) were used in the experiments. The experiments are extremely trivial.

However, our paper got quality checked, from the Journal Editor:

Authors reporting experiments on humans and/or the use of human tissue samples must confirm that all experiments were performed in accordance with relevant guidelines and regulations. Additionally the article file must include a statement identifying the institutional and/or licensing committee approving the experiments, including any relevant details, in the “Methods” section. Please check that the information provided in the methods section is unambiguous using the following requirements:

  • A statement to confirm that all methods were carried out in accordance with relevant guidelines and regulations.
  • A statement to confirm that all experimental protocols were approved by a named institutional and/or licensing committee.
  • Must include a sentence confirming that informed consent was obtained from all subjects or, if subjects are under 18, from a parent and/or legal guardian.

Briefly speaking, we need a bioethics statement that says, the blood in the experiments is approved by the University and the donor (which is me).

However, we are from CS and the University bio-ethics committee asked us to build a bio-safe lab before providing such license to us. This is time-consuming, costly, and far beyond our scope. Worse, there is no available human blood cells in the University for now. And I do not want to delay the paper submission.

My questions:

  • How can I by-pass the bio-ethics statement? Would there be any law issues? I am the donor and I approve any usage of my own blood. Why would there be an issue?

  • What are the proper, canonical, professional way of handling this?



  1. Why not use public datasets?

    I am not doing machine learning, and our microscopy is specially designed. So I cannot use datasets from other groups.

  2. Are you looking for retroactive permission?

    No. We are applying to IRB for a new license. (That said, my previous experiments are unknown personal behaviors, and it has nothing to do with the group and the PI)

  3. Can you use other samples, e.g. animal blood?

    I do have other samples. Besides, I have tried mice blood but their red blood cells are x4 smaller and beyond the hardware & software limits. I would like human red blood cells to be in the paper because in convention it is the one to demonstrate the method, and its donut shape helps illustrating one of our major arguments.

A summary for today's talk with IRB (what they really need):

  • Biohazard: PI, the donor, and the person who is handling the blood, will have to take biosafety training, which is simple and online (I suppose).

  • Bioethics: The donor's confirmation for the experiments. (Actually, there is much more to discuss; but we skip this part)

  • How the blood is obtained: IRB does not care whatever interaction between the donor and the person analyzing the blood; they are only responsible for safety of all the persons involved, and that if the donor is from the University, make sure he/she is volunteered. Consequently, we can get the blood from:

    1. Our lab. Additional equipments are required, lancets etc, as long as it qualifies as a bio-safe lab. (the IRB guy does not know the exact items; but can tell there is another committee to deal with...) Now it involves biohazard again.

    2. Other groups with professionals.

    3. Local hospitals.

    4. Commercial vendors.

Now it is much clearer. I opt for Commercial vendors. Here will be my next steps:

  1. Finish the biohazard training.

  2. Submit the IRB form and get their permission. (only biohazard issue, not bioethics)

  3. Get commercial blood samples (under $100).

  4. Re-do the experiments, and submit the paper again.

In such a way, only the biohazard part is cared by IRB. Bioethics, blood acquisition, IRB does not care. And this is the fastest way to get it done.

Thanks everyone reading and helping me.


8 Answers 8


First, I'll assume that you don't and can't bypass the statement. The journal isn't going to go along with that.

Second, while this may be an edge case, the line needs to be drawn somewhere and it has been decided that the line is drawn in the most conservative place so that you don't need to make judgements in every case. The reason for conservatism here is the potentially harmful result of getting it wrong - from HIV to Ebola.

Third, there are issues that you aren't considering. While it is your blood and you certainly give permission, there are protocols for handling blood that treat it, properly, as a bio-hazard. Researchers (and medical personnel) who deal with this a lot know the risks and take proper precautions. But you haven't, apparently, indicated that you took those precautions yourself, thinking of them as trivial.

Fourth, it seems like you didn't deal with your institutions IRB (or equivalent) or you would have been told of these issues and how to avoid them. You may be able to go to them now and get the appropriate authorization for what previously happened, but I would guess they might well object.

Finally, I suggest that you abandon the current paper for now, redo the experiment under proper protocols and then re-write it (copying essentially everything from the current version) and then re-submit it with a complete accounting of the experiment. User Anyon suggested using another lab (after getting ok from IRB). Another option would be to (with IRB permission) elicit help from a physician or medical lab to aid in obtaining specimens and dealing with any waste.

  • 4
    The OP certainly could give informed consent to the use of the OP's blood, but the journal cannot know whether the OP's consent was properly informed. They would depend on the IRB reviewing the information that must be known to the experimental subjects before giving consent. Feb 10, 2019 at 0:22
  • 52
    @GlenPierce: The same is true of any organic material that can spoil, like that slice of pizza somebody left in the fridge for too long, but you don't see anyone applying biohazard regs to that (even if they maybe should). Also, people routinely dispose of their own blood (e.g. on bandages, sanitary pads, etc.) in normal garbage bins, and that's not generally seen as a major infection risk. Yes, there are specific risks involved in handling human blood, especially if it's fresh and not yours. But those risks do not magically increase just because someone put the blood under a microscope first. Feb 10, 2019 at 8:40
  • 10
    That said, I agree with the gist of this answer: there's a line that needs to be drawn somewhere, and the OP was unlucky enough to have stepped just barely over it. So now they have to find some way to jump through all the hoops and tick all the necessary boxes to prove that what they did (or will do) was, in fact, done safely and ethically. Feb 10, 2019 at 8:44
  • 4
    "Second, while this may be an edge case, the line needs to be drawn somewhere and it has been decided that the line is drawn in the most conservative place so that you don't need to make judgements in every case. The reason for conservatism here is the potentially harmful result of getting it wrong - from HIV to Ebola. " But it does look like a judgment is needed in this case. Moreover, even if it needs to be redone "right", building your own lab by someone who is not an expert would seem at least every bit as "ethically questionable", no? That demands thus seems clearly not reasonable. Feb 10, 2019 at 10:47
  • 5
    @The_Sympathizer It's quite possible that the OP just assumed that.
    – user253751
    Feb 10, 2019 at 22:53

This is a much bigger deal than you seem to think it is.

What are the proper, canonical, professional way of handling this?

You (or your research group) should seek to partner with someone with practical experience running experiments on human tissue, which does not have to be from your University. As long as you are running experiments on human tissue, someone in the pipeline needs to have knowledge of the ethical way to do it, and be able to properly document it. If your group is working alone, you have to take that burden on yourself (which is how I interpret the the response from the university's bio-ethics committee.) If you partner with someone, yes you will have to 'spread around the credit', but you won't have to be the ones to ensure that your tissues are handled ethically.

From your questions, it seems to me that you / your group is familiar with the equipment (enough that you were able to get the sample and correctly image it), but it is not clear to me that your group is set up to actually collect the sample in a professional way. You've mentioned CS, so I assume that your facilities are not set up to collect specimens, but rather to analyze the images. (Are you set up to safely handle and observe them? I can't tell from the question.)

It also seems to me that your research is focused on what happens once the sample has been given to you (From calling it a 'trivial experiment', an extremely trivial experiment, a 'few tiny drops of blood', etc.) This says to me that you have no experience running professional experiments on human tissue. That lack of experience is causing you to think that it is unimportant. I would bet that you have not been through Ethics and Compliance Training; you should start there. Yes it will consume time (and therefore money). But isn't the upfront cost of getting properly trained a better price than not being able to have your work published in a decent journal (which is where you currently are)?

One way that may help you think about why this is important: You believe everything is on the up and up because you were there. How do you prove this to someone who wasn't? Where is the paper trail proving you gave your blood with your explicit consent? Was it obtained in a sterile manner? (Prove it.) Was the sample harvested ethically and safely? (Prove it.) *

How can I by-pass the bio-ethics statement?

I am not about to answer this question. I do not suggest you try to do so. Any legal issues would likely come from the tissue source sueing (so, I don't expect you would sue yourself). BUT the questions to your reputation could be something you have not thought about. If you are willing to publish results without a bio-ethics statement (even on something as "extremely trivial" as this), your audience will start to raise questions that will haunt you.

And I do not want to delay the paper submission.

Whether you want to or not doesn't really matter. You have to put publishing this work on hold, until you can find somebody with the proper training to work with you, or you meet the requirements of the university so that your group can collect and handle samples professionally. I suspect that there is a very real chance that you will have to treat this work as a rough draft and repeat it on a new sample (one that comes with the appropriate paperwork).

* And, just to be clear, my 'prove it' comments aren't challenges; they are the questions I don't think you are qualified to answer. What medical training do you have? What training in bio-ethics do you have?

  • 41
    A common response in such situations to "prove it" is often "I'm the one conducting the study, why do we need to make a big deal of my consent/safety?" However, there have been more than a few examples where junior co-authors have been coerced by their supervisor into being test subjects or donating tissue, to their potential detriment. Your particular case might not be coercive, but requiring the proper forms and third-party IRB sign-off provides a safety check. (If you can be coerced to donate, you can be coerced to utter nebulous assurances that you weren't.)
    – R.M.
    Feb 9, 2019 at 19:32
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    @R.M. - Would the forms and IRB really be effective in preventing that sort of situation?
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 9, 2019 at 19:51
  • 15
    @Obie2.0 Granted, they're not 100% effective, but having a third party look things over helps to separate out the "yeah, no big deal" cases from the "wait - there might be worrisome coercion happening here" cases needing a closer second look. At the very least it can possibly move things from (hard to detect/punish) unofficial "shading of truth" to explicitly lying in official black and white.
    – R.M.
    Feb 9, 2019 at 20:13
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    This answer could use an explicit example of what could go wrong to highlight the importance and thus make it understandable why these rules are not out of caprice. (For example, one possibility might be that while it is hir own blood, sie might be harboring an undiagnosed bloodborne infection [whether actual or not is irrelevant - it's a risk from the pov of others] and thus by treating without proper protocol, risking spreading that. The "infraction" is then that one created this undue risk to others in the experiment.) Feb 10, 2019 at 11:01
  • "your audience will start to raise questions that will haunt you." the correct response from all sane people in the field is to shun and destroy the careers of anyone insane enough to respond in such a way. There's no excuse for discarding common sense.
    – Murphy
    Feb 12, 2019 at 15:20

Your results are not publishable.

I think the others are beating around the bush too much.

You didn't deal with procedures for handling human samples. You didn't document your consent, you didn't have any procedures for adverse findings. Could you even prove it was your blood?

Your IRB will not approve you retroactively, a) because they don't do that and b) as far as I can tell, they shouldn't have approved your procedure anyway.

It would have been easy to get approved a priori, and I'm sorry your training in CS didn't prepare you for this, but if you really need this paper ASAP, you need to forget about getting your sample approved and figure out how to get one you can work with.

  • 5
    +1 This is absolutely true and also why in the near future western civilization is bound to collapse. Bureaucracy and the legal system will eat us alive.
    – DRF
    Feb 11, 2019 at 14:48
  • 4
    @DRF Not a legal issue atm (although it would have been if something bad had happened). And frankly, the bureaucracy here is not that intense; the OP was just not aware of it. Feb 11, 2019 at 16:45
  • 1
    The point of the bureaucracy is to do more good than harm. Does it do that? I'm not so sure, after reading about so many cases of worthwhile research that was abandoned. It's not insurmountable, but how many good things did we already lose because people just don't bother anymore? This is especially true for counter-studies, given how rarely those are published.
    – Luaan
    Feb 13, 2019 at 13:17
  • 2
    @Luaan I'm not sure what you're referring to, but I'm not of the opinion this research was properly done and hampered by the bureaucracy. Feb 13, 2019 at 15:44
  • No disagreement there :) I'm more worried about the people who are deterred from even trying to do any research, not about people who just don't understand the rules.
    – Luaan
    Feb 13, 2019 at 18:34

I can think of one (possibly) entirely ethical way to bypass the more onerous demands of the bioethics committee: don't use human blood.

You are working on microscope imagery, rather than immunology or any other functional issue, so any blood cell of approximately the right size ought to be acceptable. I would try contacting a local vet to see about collecting a sample.

It would still be necessary to consult with the committee, since they may well have guidelines for animal experimentation, but presumably the guidelines will be much less demanding, since in general you don't get cross-species infection issues.

  • 12
    +1...There are in fact onerous protocols for experimentation on vertebrate animals, but invertebrates are pretty much fair game. I'd also be surprised if there weren't open source databases of images of animal or human blood...a quick search reveals one on Kaggle, though no idea if that would be suitable for OP's needs
    – cag51
    Feb 10, 2019 at 1:10
  • 1
    @cag51 - My thought was that if an animal such as a dog were having blood drawn for testing, a small amount might be diverted to the OP, and the result might (or, of course, might not) be exempt from "experimental" protocols. After all, no experiments are being done on the dog. Feb 10, 2019 at 1:13
  • 19
    Though I am no expert on animal testing, I think using a dog as you describe would lead to pretty much exactly the same type of problem that OP has now -- it seems trivial, but there are a ton of rules. Even filling out a survey requires an IRB, for reasons I've never accepted. But invertebrate blood might work, there are ~no rules on invertebrates.
    – cag51
    Feb 10, 2019 at 1:17
  • 10
    @cag51 - Sheer vertabratism at its worst. We should form a committee to protest. Feb 10, 2019 at 1:20
  • 15
    @JamesMartin I'd join your protest but, honestly, I don't have the backbone... Feb 10, 2019 at 17:06

It is possible for an IRB to make a determination that your research, though it involves humans, does not rise to the level of human use that would require a whole protocol. I've gone down this road when trying to do 'experiments' that involve students using a web interface and having their activities recorded. It takes a few months and costs several hundred dollars, but it's probably the best case scenario for you.

That said, I do not know if you will be able to get such an exemption when you are drawing, storing and processing blood. Regardless of whose blood it is and whether they gave consent, there are legitimate concerns about infection. In this case, you may need to hire a group that does this kind of work and already has approved protocols in place (or find an extant dataset from such a group that you can use).

  • Yes, your IRB might simply give you a letter saying that IRB approval is not required.
    – kmm
    Feb 10, 2019 at 19:28

I understand how requiring an approval and protocol for a few drops of your own blood may sound like a bureaucratic overkill, but it really isn't. Imagine you badly hurt your finger or catch a bloodborne disease in the process. Since this would've happened in your lab while you were performing your research duties, it would effectively constitute an occupational accident with all its consequences. If you could prove your adviser / head of lab / etc. knew you were doing experiments with your blood, yet didn't provide you with training and equipment required to do it safely, you'd likely have a legal claim against them, or the institution.

So yes, there are potential legal issues with your approach, and you'll have to fulfil the requirements for experiments with human tissue, or do your experiment with something else.


My apologies, I have not gone through the other answers. However, here are some practical tips:

  1. There are independent Human Ethics committees that you can apply to who can then rule on them.

  2. You can always ask for a waiver if the blood sample is going to be provided by the principal investigator in an investigator initiated experiment.

  3. You can simply contact the nearest teaching hospital attached to a medical school or any biomedical research facility, talk to researchers there to collaborate with you on this experiment. Many would be happy to collaborate across disciplines, institutions, etc. Many journals even reward transnational studies.

  4. You need to mention in your ethics committee application if this is a non-traditional method or if the method itself is experimental so that they can rule on various aspects of the experiment apart from the ethical part - biosafety, etc.

Hope this helps.

Added: On Independent Ethics Committee: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5839245/#cre292-note-0016 COPE Statement: https://publicationethics.org/files/Full%20set%20of%20English%20flowcharts_9Nov2016.pdf Pay attention to : What to do if you suspect an ethical problem with a submitted manuscript.

  • Could you elaborate on Point 1 the independent Human Ethics committees? And elaborate on Point 2 please? From our application experience to IRB it seems there’s no difference if donor is me (student) or the PI.
    – WDC
    Feb 10, 2019 at 14:32
  • 1
    Most of your answer is relevant for future actions and does not address correcting a past action.
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 10, 2019 at 14:34
  • 4
    It would almost certainly be against the rules of the OP's institution to seek permission from an independent IRB for this research as a way to avoid dealing with the institution's IRB. Feb 10, 2019 at 17:26
  • 2
    @BrianBorchers OP had mentioned that the paper is on the Algorithm and Software and that the experiment was trivial, using blood of the OP only. In most Universities, such experiments (say, at a very initial, preliminary or small pilot stages) are exempted from getting Ethics clearances. The parameters for applying for ethics is involvement of human or animal subjects. If the quantity of biological tissue/fluid needed is very small, for e.g. a prick or drop of blood from the investigator itself, it qualifies in most places for waivers. This can be confirmed by any ethics committee. Feb 10, 2019 at 18:41
  • 3
    @Jagan Mohan. At my US based institution, the IRB (I'm a member of the IRB) would certainly require approval before the first blood sample was taken. Feb 10, 2019 at 19:40

I'd say this (given the comments).

While I have not encountered such a situation, I'd suggest that because you are a Computer Science-trained person and not a trained biomedical researcher, the board did act very unreasonably by demanding that you, as such, and presumably with knowledge of your credentials if the institution is even half worth the salt of whatever accreditation it is supposed to have, undergo an even more technical and expertise-requiring, and thus introducing even worse possibilities for screwups, project of building your own bio-lab by yourself. Given that, I can absolutely understand and totally sympathize with (see my username tag) your plight. Personally I would not entrust that task to anyone but a real specialist in that area, i.e. a trained biomedical researcher. Using facilities is one thing. Creating a facility yourself is kind of like, to use a computer-related analogy, amateurs writing their own crypto, I'd think, and the actions of the board like that seeing you were not using proper encryption for secure communications and then demanding that as a response you should go and fashion your own ciphers and programs instead of trying to help you get properly-built stuff.

That said, you cannot expect the journal to lower its standards. While the risk from this is no doubt very small, nonetheless the precautionary principle is always exercised, as the other answers have alluded. As I mentioned in another comment, one could imagine a situation in which one (not saying you do, so don't freak) had an undiagnosed bloodborne infection (many do not immediately produce symptoms, e.g. Hepatitis) and then inadvertently spread it to a lab assistant or other person who contacted the blood. The journals are right to be concerned with the improper procedure used just as you are to be annoyed with ham-handed management.

If the experiment is truly trivial, then I'd suggest that you should not necessarily be too shy about repeating it (plus you may discover that in the course of doing so you could do something even better with a second think-through). The real problem though is getting management to approve, and I'd suggest your focus really should be on finding out why they'd make that demand and to find an alternate solution that will provide the facilities and/or handling required to meet the ethical guidelines correctly without you having to be pushed even further beyond the limits of your expertise.

Moreover, I'd also wonder why you'd need to rush this paper. Is there something of significant negative consequentiality that will happen if you do not submit it "on time"? (e.g. if you fail to deliver by the "desired" time is it going to jeopardize your position, or something else that would seriously affect you and/or others under your trust?) If that is the case, then you might want to take that up in the disputes with management as well and tell them that you are seeking to humour their concern that the experiment be performed according to proper ethical protocol yet also that you have an important reason you need to get it done as soon as possible.

  • thanks for the answer. Indeed I need to talk to IRB to understand their real need. I am rushing the paper is because it is been 4 months and I will be on industrial market soon.
    – WDC
    Feb 10, 2019 at 11:28

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