Some journals fail to enforce disclosures

Several leading medical and science journals fail to enforce their own policies for disclosing financial conflicts of interest among contributing authors, according to a study released July 12 by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The study examined 163 articles in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), and Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.1 It identified at least 13 articles where authors did not disclose relevant conflicts of interest that should have been disclosed according to the journals’ policies. CSPI found another 11 articles where there were undisclosed conflicts of interest that might not have directly related to the subject at hand, but should have been disclosed nevertheless.

"Published research that fails to disclose authors’ ties to drug companies threatens the credibility of scientific journals and rightly undermines public confidence in studies about the safety or efficacy of various drugs or chemicals," said Merrill Goozner, director of the Integrity in Science Project at CSPI and the author of the study.

Nondisclosure of financial conflicts of interest was a problem at all four journals, the study found, but JAMA had the highest rate of nondisclosure of conflicts at 11.3% (six out of 53 articles). The undisclosed conflicts in JAMA ranged from consulting fees from companies immediately involved in the subject of the study to authors holding patents on technologies that may one day prove valuable because of information contained in the study.

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CSPI recommends that journal editors require authors to disclose any financial arrangements they have had with private firms within the past three years, regardless of whether those arrangements relate to the subject of the article, and that the conflicts be published if they are in any way related to the article’s subject. CSPI also says that authors should be required to disclose any patent applications, or intentions to apply for any patents. To encourage authors to comply with journals’ policies, CSPI also recommends that editors adopt strong sanctions for failing to disclose conflicts of interest, such as a three-year ban on publication imposed on authors who fail to make complete disclosures.

"Some of the blame for the failure to disclose these conflicts rests with the individual scientists, who clearly feel comfortable withholding fairly glaring conflicts," Goozner said. "But much of the blame must rest with the journal editors themselves, who, for the most part, have created disclosure policies that too narrowly define what conflicts are relevant."

When asked about the study, some journal editors said the CSPI report unfairly implied that prior corporate consulting relationships were an inherent conflict of interest and defended their monitoring of compliance.

Gregory Curfman, executive editor of NEJM, told The Wall Street Journal that the center’s criticism levied against the two researchers in the journal was "underwhelming," noting that their article didn’t involve assessments of any drugs or products. He added that, while the NEJM’s disclosure policies may not be perfect, "we spend a lot of time on this."

Editors of some of the other journals covered, however, told the newspaper they welcomed the report. "We really rely upon scrutiny of these disclosure statements by other scientists and outside organizations," said Tom Goehl, editor-in-chief of EHP, who added that his editorial board plans to discuss whether to impose sanctions on researchers who fail to disclose conflicts.


1. Tomsho R. Report faults scientific journals on financial disclosures. The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2004: p. 3/section D.