Some entities, when carrying out research, do not strictly require Institutional review board (IRB) approval (or may be doing the whole thing in a place where IRB does not exist).

If we believe that a piece of contribution has ethical concerns that may fail an IRB inspection but see no IRB requirements on both where they are from (where they work) and where they are going to (where they publish),

  1. Is it OK
    • to endorse this work?
    • to use this work in another research (without ethical concerns)?
    • to use this work in another research that requires IRB approval?
  2. What should we do?
  • 1
    Who is "we"? A publisher or other.
    – Buffy
    Oct 26, 2020 at 14:14
  • 1
    In the situation that raised this question, a reviewer, but I think this question applies to other groups of people (publisher, reader, general public) too.
    – xxbidiao
    Oct 26, 2020 at 14:19
  • 3
    "Is it OK to use this work" is opnion-based and, I believe, much debated among philosophers. Oct 26, 2020 at 21:27
  • 5
    What's IRB ? I mean I can guess and Google, but I haven't come across this acronym before. Oct 26, 2020 at 23:24
  • 2
    @Marianne013 In this context, IRB is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutional_review_board .
    – xxbidiao
    Oct 26, 2020 at 23:41

2 Answers 2


It is (or should be) a principle that any research involving human (and some animal) subjects should be subject to prior independent ethics review, such as is done by IRB structures. If you are reviewing for a reputable journal, I would expect (or at least hope) that the journal has such a requirement on anything they would consider publishing.

Whether they have such a requirement or not, you would be wise to note the lack of a statement of ethical review in anything that you examine. Let the editor know that there is a missing, ethically required, piece.

If you seem sure that no review was ever done, rather than just a missing statement, then you would probably also be advised not to review the paper further. Ethical constraints on such research isn't something that can be patched up after the fact. People have died. People have died horrible deaths after long illnesses. Doing such research without independent prior review is not ok.

Note, of course, that there are some kinds of research that don't require IRB approval. But it is usually an ethical board that makes that determination. See this for example.

  • 3
    This certainly good for e.g. medical testing, and other subjects where ethics review is clearly crucial. However, there’s a large range of fields/topics where it’s now standard but much less essential — e.g. a linguistics study where human subjects just read a word-list into a microphone will still require IRB review at many US/European institutions today. In such topics, “if no review was done, don’t review further” seems a bit overly strict — it’s not unreasonable that some institutions, especially under-resourced ones, draw the line of requiring review lower than others.
    – PLL
    Oct 27, 2020 at 8:42
  • Just to be clear... doing research that results in death isn't bad because of the lack of IRB review, its bad because someone died. Research isn't automatically bad because IRB didn't rubber-stamp it. Sep 9, 2021 at 13:28

If you are asked to peer-review human subjects research, and the paper does not state that the research was approved by an ethics board, you must recommend that the paper be rejected.

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