Researchers' disclosures of competing financial interests are undergoing a dangerous transformation from instruments of transparency to evidence of wrongdoing.
Awareness of the commercial potential of biomedical research is at an all-time high. One concern that has resulted from this increased awareness is that money may exert a corrupting influence on scientists, who may engage in misconduct for the sake of financial gain. Many journals have therefore developed mechanisms to address the possibility that commercial bias could affect the research they publish. The main strategy has been to request authors to disclose their financial interests in their work.
The original idea behind this stipulation was that if the authors revealed financial interests pertinent to their publication, readers could incorporate this information into their thinking about the reliability of the work. So, the main motivation in asking authors to disclose financial interests was to promote transparency.
As reported in page 986, scientists and journals experience intense criticism when an author does not divulge all the financial interests that are relevant to a paper. Corrections are printed, apologies are issued, reputations are tarnished—a scenario uncomfortably similar to what ensues when cases of scientific misconduct surface. How did a declaration of financial interests change from a document aimed at increasing transparency to evidence of wrongdoing? To answer this question, it might be helpful to examine two assumptions behind the need to disclose their financial interests.
First, do scientists misrepresent their research for the sake of monetary gain? When scientists engage in misconduct, money does not seem to be the driving force. As discussed in our May issue (Nat. Med. 12, 490–494), the desire to secure career advancement, peer recognition and research funds can explain many cases of scientific misconduct. Indeed, our own experience with retractions seems to confirm this observation. In this context, it could be argued that competing financial interests are not as important as competing academic interests (such as applying for tenure or for grant money), and yet these are not disclosed, as they are regarded as implicit in the life of a scientist.
The situation is more complex for journals that publish large-scale clinical trials. As these expensive trials are sponsored by big pharmaceutical companies, the stakes are much higher. The pharmaceutical industry has been accused of exerting undue influence on researchers who carry out trials, pushing them to report results in the most favorable light possible. There have been high-profile cases of this behavior. As a result, companies are acutely aware of the need to regain the public trust and to be as transparent as possible. But, overall, the need for transparency in reporting large-scale clinical trials—including those that fail—remains as urgent as ever.
A similar case can be made for the publication of review articles, which often present a subjective view of a field. Several well publicized failures to disclose financial interests, some of which affected our parent company, have involved review material. In fact, our own policy on competing financial interests, which initially applied only to primary research, was extended to review articles as a result of those cases (although News and Views remain an exception).
So, money matters, but a one-size-fits-all policy on competing financial interests for all journals and kinds of articles may not be the best way forward. Moreover, there seems to be an imbalance between the excessive emphasis on financial interests and the lack of attention to other types of competing interests that may undermine the integrity of research more than money does.
Second, do financial interests affect the reader's evaluation of a paper? When we assess papers for publication, the financial interests of the authors do not affect our evaluation. Also, most of our referees are indifferent to any financial interests of the authors. And we have not received feedback from readers that the existence of such interests compromises the integrity of the research we publish.
Cases of nondisclosure are commonly reported first by news organizations. Not surprisingly, in a climate in which the public's trust of scientific research has been undermined by highly visible instances of misconduct, lack of disclosure can easily be construed as evidence of wrongdoing. This impression is reinforced by the media in editorials in which they accuse journals of not doing enough to prevent bias, proposing unrealistic solutions such as publishing only authors free of financial conflicts.
Scientific journals have an obligation to promote transparency, and it is in our best interest to strengthen the credibility of what we publish. We strongly support the disclosure of competing financial interests, and will continue using this tool to facilitate objectivity, as imperfect as it may be, while monitoring its performance trying to improve it. At the same time, journals should be careful before buying into the idea that not reporting competing financial interests is the newest form of scientific misconduct.
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The FASEB Journal (2009)