This month, PLoS Genetics is publishing an article from the company 23andMe reporting the first genome-wide association studies (GWAS) on multiple traits ascertained by self-reported information provided through the Internet from over 10,000 participants who pay the company for providing whole genome genotypes . The paper passed through scientific review by a panel of three experts relatively quickly and is sure to attract the attention of anyone with freckles, curly hair, or an aversion to asparagus. Novel associations are described for four intrinsically interesting traits (out of 22 considered), while known associations with hair and eye color are replicated in a dynamic data-gathering context. Additionally, intriguing observations on the interaction between genetic self-knowledge and self-report of phenotypes are described. The implications of the successful application of this Internet-enabled approach to GWAS research were considered to be more than sufficient to warrant publication in the journal.
The editors of PLoS Genetics recognize that the decision to publish this study, without IRB review as human subjects research and with some concerns over the consent document, and the fact that there is limited access to the raw data, will not sit well with some, perhaps many, readers. As outlined above, though, a prima facie valid IRB exemption was obtained, and, while there are ambiguities in the consent form, there was no evidence that these amount to an inadequate document. After considering all of the evidence, we decided that publication, accompanied by an editorial providing transparent documentation of the process of consideration, was the most appropriate course.
Seems like this Interwebs thing might be starting to catch on.
(Hat tip: the indefatigable Bora Z)