The medical community has recently been debating the implications of new revelations that a major study regarding lung cancer survival rates was supported, in part, by funds from the cigarette maker Liggett Group.
We sent the following news story, Cigarette Company Paid for Lung Cancer Study (New York Times, 3/26/08), to leading health care scholars and asked them whether the source of medical research funding biases research findings.
Sally Satel Responds:
“I would never publish a paper dealing with lung cancer from a person who had taken money from a tobacco company,” Dr. DeAngelis said to the New York Times this week.
DeAngelis is the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. In other words, even if the data show important, even path-breaking findings, they are banished from consideration solely because of sponsorship. How very dismaying to realize that someone charged with bringing scientific knowledge to the medical community and the public views pre-emptive censorship as the solution to potential conflict of interest matters.
Furthermore, why focus on corporate-funded researchers? Bias can also afflict those funded by the government and non-profit foundations. The solution lies in transparency for all. For consideration: JAMA and other journals could insist that authors make their data available to other researchers and statisticians for the purposes of replication only.* Those who request it must agree not to use those data to explore and test their own independent hypotheses for publication or dissemination unless they invite the original researchers (collectors of those data) to participate in new re-analyses. If the original authors refuse, then no new analyses may be undertaken as part of a pre-arranged agreement.
Should a troubling finding be uncovered in the course of re-analysis, it must be brought to attention of original researchers (in whose best interest it is to pursue it, report it to FDA, and/or release news of this important new data). Dr. Donald Klein, Director Research Emeritus at the College of Physicians & Surgeons at Columbia University, has suggested a 3 year “patent” on those data, after which any researcher may use them to pursue independent analysis even if original authors decline involvement.
Clearly, further elaboration on this idea is needed, but promotion of transparency is the most intellectually honest way to address questions about research findings. Blanket refusal to consider research for publication is an affront to good-faith investigators no matter who sponsors their work.”
* see Data Availability Policy of the American Economic Review at http://www.aeaweb.org/aer/data_availability_policy.html