Today (March 13) at 3 PM EST, there's a hearing scheduled on a legal motion that could change the way scientific results are published in this country. Pfizer is being sued over injuries that plaintiffs believe came from their use of Celebrex, one of the world’s only remaining Cox-2 inhibitor drugs. (I saw a Celebrex tv ad the other day, a surreal thing which was basically a lengthy recitation of FDA-mandated side effect language accompanied by jazzy graphics). Everyone with a Cox-2 compound is being sued from every direction, as a matter of course. The company is, naturally, casting around for any weapon that comes to hand for its defense, as did Merck when that same sky began to come down on them.
But Pfizer’s lawyers (DLA Piper LLP of Boston) are apparently (your choice, multiple answers permitted) more aggressive, more unscrupulous, or more clueless than Merck’s. Among the points at issue are several papers from the New England Journal of Medicine. According to the motion, which I paid to download from PACER, two of the particularly contentious ones are this one on complications after cardiac surgery and this one on cardiac risk during a colon cancer trial. So Pfizer has served the journal’s editors with a series of subpoenas. They’re seeking to open the files on these manuscripts – reviewer comments, reviewer names, editorial correspondence, rejected submissions, the lot. What are they hoping to find? Oh, who knows – whatever’s there: ”Scientific journals such as NEJM may have received manuscripts that contain exonerating data for Celebrex and Bextra which would be relevant for Pfizer's causation defense” say the lawyers. The journal refused to comply, so Pfizer has now filed a motion in district court in Massachusetts to compel them to open up.
What's particularly interesting is the the journal has, to some extent, already done so. According to Pfizer's "Motion to Compel", the editors "produced a sampling of forms identifying the names of manuscript authors and their financial disclosures, correspondence between NEJM editors and authors regarding suggested editorial changes and acceptance and rejection letters". The motion goes on to say, though, that the editors had the nerve to ignore the broader fishing expedition, only releasing documents for authors specifically named in the subpoenas, not "any and all" documents related to Celebrex or Bextra. They also withheld several documents under the umbrella of peer review and internal editoral processes. Thus, the request to open up the whole thing.
I’ve never heard of this maneuver before. Staff members of the NEJM gave depositions in the early phases of the Merck litigation, since the journal was in the middle of the Vioxx fighting. (They’d “expressed concern” several times about the studies that had appeared in their own pages and passed through their own review process). But even then, I don’t think that Merck wanted to open up the editorial files, and you’d think that if anyone had something to gain by it, they would.
Pfizer’s motion seems to me more like a SLAPP, combined with standard fishing expedition tactics. Their legal team doesn’t seem to think that any of this will be a problem, at least as far as you can tell from their public statements. They say in their motion that they don’t see any harm coming to the NEJM if they comply – heavens, why not? Reviewers will just line up to look over clinical trial publications if they think that their confidentiality can be breached in case of a lawsuit, won’t they? And the rest of the scientific publishing world could look for the same treatment, any time someone published data that might be relevant to someone’s court case, somewhere. Oh, joy.
Pfizer’s motion states that ” The public has no interest in protecting the editorial process of a scientific journal”. Now, it’s not like the peer review process is a sacred trust, but it’s the best we’ve been able to come up with so far. It reminds me of Churchill’s comment about democracy being the worst form of government until you look at the alternatives. I realize that it’s the place of trial lawyers and defense teams to scuffle around beating each other with whatever they can pick up, but I really don’t think that they should be allowed to break this particular piece of furniture.
And I can’t see how the current review process won’t get broken if Pfizer’s motion is granted. The whole issue is whether the journal's editors can claim privilege - if so, they don't have to release, and if not, they most certainly do. This can't help but set a precedent, one way or another. If there's no privilege involved in the editorial process, a lot of qualified and competent reviewers will start turning down any manuscript that might someday be involved in legal action. (Which, in the medical field, might be most of them). The public actually does have an interest in seeing that there is a feasible editorial process for scientific journals in general, and I hope that the judge rules accordingly.
In the meantime, for all my friends at Pfizer and for all the other scientists there with integrity and good sense: my condolences. Your company isn’t doing you any favors this week.
(One of the first mentions of all this was on the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog. The comments that attach to it are quite interesting, dividing between the hands-off-peer-review crowd and a bunch of people who want to see the NEJM taken down a few pegs. I can sympathize with that impulse, but there has to be a better way to do it than this. And there’s more commentary from Donald Kennedy, editor of Science, here (you can pretty much guess what he thinks about this great idea).