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Promoting Ethics in Science

December 7, 2006

About 10 years ago, Sheldon Krimsky was giving a talk to a group of researchers about money's influence on science . When he was done, he says, a dean hosting the talk jumped up and tried to downplay the discussion.

Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University and author of Science in the Private Interest, said that he recently discovered that this person has been receiving money from a major corporation for research that might help sell its product. “A dozen years ago, any discussion about conflicts of interest in science was seen as McCarthyism.”

Increasingly, journals are appearing in front page scandals that expose undisclosed industry support of research and scientists who have faked results. Blackwell Publishing, trying to prevent such problems, recently released a comprehensive guide on publication ethics to the editors of its 805 academic journals. These principles provide practical advice to inform policies on a broad range of topics such as conflicts of interest. While the guidelines will not be mandatory, experts seem pleased and expect the move will help to clean up academic publishing.

The guidelines state, for example, that readers have a right to know who supported the research or the publication of a paper. Further, Blackwell advises editors to publish financial disclosures for letters, editorials and commentaries. And the specific role of the funders should also be revealed, whether in gathering data, analyzing results, preparing the manuscript, or controlling publication decisions.

“This sets a high standard for publishing in the journal field,” said Merrill Goozner, director of the Integrity in Science project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For the last couple years, the center has been running a campaign to get academic publishers to tighten their ethical policies, particularly in disclosing the financial sources of authors and their research.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies have reported a funding effect in science. For instance, an article released last summer in the America Journal of Psychiatry analyzed 10 industry funded trials that compared antipsychotic drugs. Nine of the 10 trials found that the best drug was the one manufactured by the company paying for the study. And a survey of literature also found a publishing bias in studies on the plastics chemical Bisphenol A, which is used to make products such as baby bottles. Fred vom Saal , professor of biology at the University of Missouri-Rolla discovered that 109 of the 120 papers published on Bisphenol A reported that minute levels of the chemical may be harmful. However, 11 corporate sponsored studies found no effect.

“The best practice guidelines issued by Blackwell sets a new standard for the big journal publishers,” said Krimsky. “Even though it is advisory, it may raise awareness and change some of the cultural attitudes against taking conflict of interest seriously.” In a 2001 study, Krimsky found that only 16 percent of the top 1400 science and biomedical journals required authors to report conflicts of interest.

Diane Scott Lichter, vice president and publisher for medical journals at Blackwell said that the company is interested making certain that people who purchase their journals know where the money came from for the study and who did the research. On occasion, journal editors have even discussed punishing researchers, such as banning authors from publishing for a specified period, after failing to disclose financial ties. Lichter said that Blackwell will not enforce punitive measures and will leave that up to the individual journal editors.

Mark Seeley, senior vice president and general counsel for Elsevier, said the best thing journals can do is investigate charges of misconduct and then make the results public. “From my personal perspective, the most serious thing you can do to punish someone in science who has broken ethics is to publish that,” he said. Elsevier is the largest publisher in science and medicine and ethical guidelines vary among its 1,800 publications. Seeley said that Elsevier released conflict of interest procedures last year, and is working now on a general guide for ethics. While it may seem that science is facing a rising tide of ethical misconduct, he said, the truth is quite different.

Krimsky, however, disagrees. He said that publishing companies must also address books funded by corporations to support and protect their products. “This is not going to slow down,” he said. “We are looking at the tip of the iceberg because universities have turned themselves into zones of entrepreneurship.”

 

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