Prevalence of Ethical Oversight Among Studies Using Google Trends Data: a Cross-sectional Analysis

  • Mitchell Love
  • Taimoor Khan
  • Nicholas B. Sajjadi
  • Ryan Ottwell
  • Matt Vassar
  • Jason Beaman
  • Micah Hartwell

Abstract

Background

The extent of ethical oversight among internet studies utilizing Google Trends (GT) data is largely unknown. GT data in prior medical research has provided a deeper understanding of public interest in and awareness of key medical issues, emphasizing the importance of ensuring ethical conduct in this field of research. Thus, we investigated the prevalence of Institutional Review Board (IRB) submission rates among GT studies.

Design

A systematic search of PubMed was conducted for observational studies using GT data published after 2012. We randomized and screened 563 articles in a masked, duplicate fashion. Title, PMID, publishing journal, publishing date, primary author credentials and country, potential correspondence for outside data, IRB statement, IRB sponsor, and funding statement were extracted. Reporting frequencies were calculated and chi-square tests were conducted.

Results

Of the 76 included studies, 3 (3.95%) declared submission to an IRB, 11 (14.47%) declared no submission, and 62 (81.58%) made no declaration. Additionally, 30 (39.47%) reported a funding source, 11 (14.47%) reported no funding source, and 35 (46.05%) did not mention funding. Study funding correlated with likelihood of reporting ethical oversight (X2=9.9, P= 0.043).  

Conclusions

Our findings suggest low reporting of ethical oversight among GT studies, possibly resulting from poor methodological documentation or widespread unfamiliarity of IRBs with internet research. Diminished submission likelihood among unfunded studies is possibly due to financial and temporal constraints. We recommend using stratified ethical review boards permitting some research to undergo truncated review, or otherwise clearly reporting the nature of review, encouraging production and limiting waste.

Published
2021-12-13
Section
Medical