Science in Society Archive

Biomed Journals Strike Out for Scientific Independence

The world’s top biomedical journals are striking out for scientific independence. In contrast, the universities and learned societies are deathly silent on the issue. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

“Governments, nationally and regionally, have consistently failed to put their people before profit. By contrast, academic institutions could intervene to support scientists when financial conflicts threaten to do harm. But these institutions have become businesses in their own right, seeking to commercialise for themselves research discoveries rather than preserve their independent scholarly status.”

The above passage came from an editorial in The Lancet earlier this year [1], which concluded, almost as a counsel of despair, that the science journals could be “one last means of protection” for scientists. In August, The Lancet and other top biomedical journals, including New England Journal of Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine and Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), announced that they will reserve the right not to publish drug company-sponsored studies “unless the researchers involved are guaranteed scientific independence” [2].

A week later, Britain’s top science journal, Nature, said that it will expect all its authors to declare “any competing financial interests” with the research papers they submit. It is unfortunate that Nature could not find itself supporting the much stronger position taken by the other biomedical journals. Many journals have required declaration of competing financial interests for years, but that has proven inadequate to counteract the undue influence that drug companies have over research results.

It is hoped that the new, stronger guarantee of scientific independence will give researchers more leverage in their dealings with the pharmaceutical industry.

Scientists who publish in biomedical journals are usually university professors and other experts in the field, but much of the research is paid for, and in large part carried out by companies. Company employees often collect and analyze the data, decide how it should be presented and write the reports.

The journal editors decided to act after several recent high profile cases in which drug companies have been charged for withholding research results or present them in unjustifiably favourable light.

Last year, researchers at the Harvard University and the University of California at San Francisco defied a corporate sponsor by publishing a study concluding that its vaccine developed as an HIV therapy, Remune, did not benefit patients who were already receiving standard treatments. The company is seeking $10 million in compensatory damages.

University of Toronto professor Nancy Olivieri lost her job after she spoke out and published an article in 1998 about a serious side effect of deferiprone, a drug for a blood disorder. Olivieri’s contract with drug company Apotex contained a nondisclosure clause. Similar nondisclosure clauses are routine, and some even adopted by research institutions in Britain.

In the early 1990s, University of California San Francisco pharmacologist Betty J. Dong found that cheaper generic versions of thyroid hormone worked as well as Synthroid, the brand-name drug whose maker had funded the research. The company, Knoll Pharmaceuticals, successfully blocked publication of Dong’s findings for seven years. In 1999, Knoll agreed to pay 37 states almost $42 million to settle a suit alleging that it had made false claims that Synthroid was superior to competing brands and had interfered with the publication of the study.

Catherine D. DeAngelis, editor of JAMA, said her journal already has a policy of demanding that authors vouch for the integrity of their data. “The goal would be that all of the major journals would adopt similar . . . principles,” she said.

Surveys of the medical literature have shown that studies paid for by drug companies are more likely than those with other sponsors to show results favourable to the product tested. Many, though not all, medical schools in the United States include clauses in grant agreements with companies stating that researchers will be free to publish even if the results are negative. But these agreements do not necessarily protect researchers from pressures not to publish for fear of losing future funding.

Bert A. Spilker, senior vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the journal editors’ concerns “patently absurd”, and accused the journals of becoming more and more antithetical to the “industry perspective”.

The biomedical journals striking out for scientific independence is to be applauded. But unless there are other concrete measures to counter the corporate culture in science, there will continue to be self-censorship and failures of disclosure. Worse, there will be temptation for scientists with vested interests to endanger lives.

Related items, Independent scientists an endangered species, and Corporate science kills, this issue.


  1. “The tightening grip of big pharma”, Editorial from THE LANCET, April 14, 2001.
  2. “A stand for scientific independence” by Susan Okie, Washington Post, August 15, 2001.

I-SIS News 11 index

Article first published October 2001

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