Last year editors of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) charged that drug giant Merck had inappropriately excluded important information from a study the journal published on the painkiller Vioxx, which was withdrawn from the market in September 2004. Merck denied any wrongdoing, but NEJM editor-in-chief Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen said he has become more wary of study authors with drug company ties.
Public concern about conflicts of interest among medical authorities is on the rise following the federal charges brought against former FDA commissioner Lester M. Crawford for allegedly owning stock in the companies his agency regulated. Such concerns have led many journals to demand detailed disclosures from study authors on any and all compensation they receive from drug or device companies, and other journals are more closely scrutinizing research produced by academic and company scientists together.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently adopted a policy that requires all studies funded by pharmaceutical firms or medical device makers to undergo a second review by a statistician with no ties to the funding company. The policy change came after JAMA printed four paragraphs of corrections in its June 7 issue disclosing financial conflicts that had been left out of a previously published study. JAMA editor-in-chief Dr. Catherine D. DeAngelis said the journal's new efforts are in part to avoid publishing faulty information on "the next Vioxx."
The journal Neuropsycho-pharmacology, formerly edited by Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff -- who resigned after his journal published a paper he'd co-authored on a medical device without revealing he had financial ties with the company -- has also moved closer toward a zero-tolerance policy on financial ties.
Though many companies have adopted stricter policies, some have found it difficult to entirely exclude scientists with financial links to drug firms. In 2002, NEJM relaxed its conflict-of-interest policy, citing an inability to find physicians who hadn't accepted something from a drug company. Former NEJM editor Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer was angry at the journal's decision to loosen its policy. "Too difficult to find people without financial conflicts?" Kassirer said. "You just have to look harder."
Consumer health advocate Mike Adams says medical journals have historically been "the propaganda mouthpieces of Big Pharma," lending apparent credibility to drug company-funded studies.
"Medical journals have willingly published fraudulent medical studies authored by researchers with strong ties to drug companies for decades," Adams said. "Pharmaceutical companies are the journals' biggest advertisers. Now that the medical journals have been caught publicizing junk science papers with undisclosed conflicts of interest, they've decided to be a little more discerning about what they publish."