Dirty tricks drug firms use to get publicity
TOM CURTIS AND MURDO MACLEOD
SHOCKING tactics including bribery, fabrication and plagiarism are being used by unscrupulous drug companies to get their research published in influential medical journals, according to a damning new report.
Only a week after controversial research on the MMR vaccine was discredited by the journal which published it following a "fatal conflict of interest", an influential committee has revealed the widespread use of underhand tactics by researchers.
And the Committee on Public Ethics (COPE) is urging the editors of scientific journals to sign up to a new code of conduct aimed at preventing conflicts of interest and mistakes in published research.
The right kind of report appearing in a scientific journal can be worth millions of pounds for drug companies and manufacturers of medical equipment. In addition, industries such as tobacco, alcohol and health, and even junk foods, hope to cite studies masquerading as independent research in support of their products.
Articles in scientific journals can also be used to knock out competitors or quieten down public concern about controversial issues.
In one of the cases cited by the report a journal published a paper on passive smoking in which the authors failed to declare financial support from the tobacco industry.
On another occasion, a high-ranking government official telephoned an editor in an attempt to stop an article being written which was critical of some government research.
In one of the most disturbing examples, a team of scientists was forced to withdraw a paper after refusing to detail how they had been allowed to analyse blood taken from babies.
Tactics have also included bribery. On one occasion an editor was telephoned by a representative who said she would guarantee to buy 1,000 reprints if the journal would continue to consider for publication a study that conflicted with a policy the journal had just introduced. "And I will buy you a dinner at any restaurant you choose," added the representative.
Plagiarism is also seen as a growing problem in scientific papers, especially where Internet search engines allow researchers to cull information from other papers.
A spectacular example saw authors copy another study almost wholesale, but change the number of patients, the type of surgery, the regimen of one of the drugs and add data for another drug.
‘If we don’t have strict ethics, how can we trust medical research?’
The revelations follow the controversy surrounding Dr Andrew Wakefield’s work on the MMR vaccine, published in the Lancet in 1998. It emerged 10 days ago that Wakefield had been looking for evidence to support a legal action by parents claiming the vaccine had harmed their children at the same time.
The research, linking MMR to autism in children, sparked a major controversy and led to large numbers of parents refusing to allow their children to be treated with the jab.
Lancet editor Dr Richard Horton said the situation represented a "fatal conflict of interest" and called into question whether Wakefield’s paper should have been published.
His comments came as the General Medical Council prepared to open an investigation into the way Wakefield carried out his study.
Last week, Sir Liam Donaldson, England’s chief medical officer, accused Wakefield of peddling "poor science". Wakefield has insisted he has done nothing wrong and says the science behind his study still stands.
COPE, which represents more than 178 editors around the world, is now publishing a guide for the editors of science publications. It puts them under an obligation to ensure the accuracy of the material they publish, maintain scientific integrity and ensure business needs do not compromise intellectual standards.
Editors are also asked to be willing to correct, clarify and retract material or issue apologies when necessary.
The new code warns them that they can be held responsible for publishing "unethical" research. It advises that systems should be in place for managing conflicts of interest relating to journal editors, their staff, authors and the reviewers who vet papers before they are published.
The code was drafted by Dr Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal - the Lancet’s main rival.
He said: "Like everybody else we are much more interested in other people’s accountability than we are our own. Editors are peculiarly unaccountable because of their traditions of editorial freedom, and there are no bodies that attempt to regulate medical and scientific editors."
A spokeswoman for the Medical Research Council said: "We in no way ever approve of such tactics to get research approved. We expect scientists to abide by the highest ethical standards in their work."
Bill O’ Neill, the Scottish secretary of the British Medical Association, said: "I don’t think anyone would question the need for strict rules. If we don’t have rigorous ethics then how can we trust research?"
Source: Scotsman News