Scientists call on journals to disclose authors' conflicts of interest


Today, more than two dozen prominent scientists, including two former editors of the New England Journal of Medicine and a former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, sent a letter to editors of ScienceProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and 200 other scientific journals, urging them to strengthen their policies concerning disclosure of conflicts of interest.

     The letter reflects increasing concern about financial and other conflicts of interest that may jeopardize the integrity of scientific research. Such conflicts, many of which are associated with the rise of industry-funded science, have already attracted scrutiny from Congress, a number of specialty societies, and several leading medical journals.

     “Whether the issue is clinical research, cancer clusters, or global warming, corporate interests can hide behind the credibility of peer-reviewed journals,” says Virginia A. Sharpe, Ph.D., a bioethicist and Director of CSPI’s Integrity in Science project which coordinated the initiative. “A presumption in favor of routine disclosure will convey a clear message that journals want to affirm the value of transparency and the reader’s need for information to assess possible bias.”

     The scientists are urging journals to publish alongside studies, editorials, and other items:

  • authors’ sources of funding;
  • financial interests of authors and their immediate families in the last 5 years in companies that may be affected by the published article;
  • the specific contribution of each author of the published paper.

     In the last few years, a number of spectacular failures of disclosure and editorial oversight have come to light. In one case that resulted in a revision of the journal’s policy, the New England Journal of Medicine published a negative review of a widely hailed book linking chemical pollution to cancer but failed to disclose that the review was written by the medical director of a major polluter. In another case, the journal Neurobiology of Aging published a panel report endorsing a proprietary blood test for Alzheimer’s disease but did not disclose that one of the panelists held a patent on the test and another was a co-founder of the company that planned to market the test. Nonetheless, most scientific journals still do not disclose authors’ conflicts of interest, and for those that do, there is very little uniformity in the requirements or consistency in the application of the policies.

     “With the amount of industry money pouring into scientific research,” says Dr. Orrin Pilkey, Director of Duke University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and a co-signer of the letter, “there is a risk that more research will just become ‘client science,’ where truth is determined according to your client’s needs. At the very least, journal editors and the public should be informed of the financial interests behind a study.”

     Some of the letter’s cosigners include: Marcia Angell, M.D., Harvard Medical School; Lisa Bero, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco; Thomas Bodenheimer, M.D., University of California, San Francisco; Bruce C. Coull, Ph.D., University of South Carolina, School of the Environment; Sheldon Krimsky, Ph.D., Tufts University; George Lundberg, M.D., Medscape General Medicine; Herbert Needleman, M.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., New York University; Edmund Pellegrino, M.D., Georgetown University Medical Center; Arnold Relman, M.D., Harvard Medical School; Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., Cornell University; and David Suzuki, Ph.D., University of British Columbia.