Prevalence of Institutional Review Board Ethical Oversight Among Google Trends Studies: A Cross-sectional Analysis

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


Background: Ethical considerations are necessary when conducting Human Subjects Research (HSR) to ensure participant’s rights are preserved. Previous ethical breaches have led to establishing Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to ensure ethical conduct in HSR. However, the extent of IRB oversight among non-HSR, such as internet studies involving publicly available databases, remains largely unknown. This study focuses on the emerging subset of internet research utilizing Google Trends (GT) data, which analyzes user search query volumes for a given topic over time and across locations. GT studies in medical research have provided a deeper understanding of the public interest in key medical issues, which may lead to positive health outcomes. It is important to ensure ethical standards are being met for these studies to help to secure their place in the scientific literature. Thus, IRB submission rates of GT studies are ascertained and characterized in this study, furthering what is known about the current state of ethical oversight of GT studies.

Study 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. Each study’s title, PMID, publishing journal, publishing date, primary author credentials and country, potential correspondence for outside data, IRB statement, IRB sponsor, and funding statement was extracted. Frequencies were calculated for all extracted characteristics and chi-square tests were conducted to measure associations between IRB submission and extracted study characteristics.

Results: 76 studies were retained for extraction. Of these articles, 3 (3.95%) declared submission to an IRB for ethics review, 11 (14.47%) declared no submission, and 62 (81.58%) made no declaration of submission. The 3 articles declaring IRB submission were published in journals with requirements for an IRB statement and from universities that required all studies be submitted for review. Of the 76 articles evaluated, 30 (39.47%) reported a funding source, 11 (14.47%) reported no funding source, and 35 (46.05%) did not mention funding. Three studies disclosed the collection of additional supporting information and data from principal sources. There was a correlation between study funding and likelihood of reporting ethical oversight (X2=9.9, P= 0.043).

Conclusions: Our principal findings demonstrate that most GT studies did not apply for IRB approval nor was this designation required by their institution or publishing journal. This may be the result of consistently poor methodological documentation known to occur in GT studies. Additionally, unfunded studies were less likely to submit to an IRB for non-HSR designations possibly due to deterrents such as monetary limitations and temporal constraints. The aforementioned limitations may hinder project initiation and also contribute to research waste. We recommend the use of stratified ethical review boards that may alleviate such hindrances by permitting research to undergo limited review or to forego review entirely, due to the nature of some studies, particularly those utilizing GT data. Preserving the advantages of IRBs while avoiding the disadvantages of potential for harm may afford ethical research conduct without slowing progress or wasting resources.
Original languageAmerican English
StatePublished - 22 Feb 2021
EventOklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences Research Days 2021: Poster presentation - Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences Campus, Tulsa, United States
Duration: 22 Feb 202126 Feb 2021


ConferenceOklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences Research Days 2021
Country/TerritoryUnited States


  • Google Trends
  • Internet Research
  • Ethics


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