There seems to be some finger-pointing going on about conflicts of interest in the scientific and medical literature. According to this piece in Nature Medicine, a recent conference in Vancouver on peer review featured statements such as this:
"We absolutely should not let up on our scrutiny of industry," says Karen Woolley, a co-author of one of the new studies and chief executive officer of the professional medical writing company ProScribe, based in Queensland, Australia. "But why are we always pointing our finger over there? There's an elephant in the room, and that's the nonfinancial conflicts of interest in academia."
I hope that ProScribe wasn't involved in that Australian journal scandal. But even though the head of a medical writing company clearly has a gigantic axe to grind here, the point isn't invalid. Academia has pressures of its own to publish, and lot of shaky stuff gets sent out under them.
Under the auspices of (the Council on Publishing Ethics), (consultant Liz) Wager dug through PubMed files to see how many papers had been retracted between 1988 and 2008. She found 529, and, in a close study of a randomly selected set of 312, she judged that only 28% were due to "honest error". Among the rest, some of the largest chunks were due to authors found publishing the same results more than once (18%), plagiarism (15%), fabrication (5%) and falsification (4%) of data. Taking into account an additional 1% in the 'other misconduct' category, the unethical reasons stacked up to 43%.
Many, perhaps most, of these papers seemed to have been unlikely to have been funded by industry. And there are, of course, plenty of rotten papers out there that never get retracted at all, in many cases because no one reads them or notices that they're a rehash of what someone else has already published. The Deja Vu people are starting to cut into that pile, though, and it's a big one.
There's a danger of all this turning into an exchange of tu quoque arguments between industry, academia, and the publishers. I think there's common ground to agree, though, that all sorts of pressures exist to publish work that shouldn't be published, and that everyone has a common interest in making sure that this doesn't happen. And industry still has a bigger responsibility, since (1) it has more money to cause trouble, if it wants to, and (2) the sorts of things it works on often have more immediate relevance to the outside world. If some obscure faculty member somewhere published reheated work in a series of low-end journals, he's only wasting the time of a limited number of people. A publication involving clinical trial data, though, can send ripples out a lot farther and faster.