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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 4, 2009

Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been. . .?

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Posted by Derek

You're supposed to disclose conflicts of interest if you're the author of a scientific paper. For the most part, everyone does, but it's those times that the system breaks down that cause all the trouble. Does this author actually earn a side income from Company X? Is that author actually about to start a new company based on the discovery that's being reported so breathlessly? And does this other author have a big stock position in company Y, whose price will be affected by this new paper? Journal editors want to know about these things, as do readers.

But how far do we go with this idea? An editorial in BioCentury (free PDF version) takes up arms against a new rule for non-financial disclosures from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. It requires authors to "report any personal, professional, political, institutional, religious, or other associations that a reasonable reader would want to know about in relation to the submitted work". And it's the inclusion of the words "personal", "political", and "religious" that could cause trouble.

Or maybe it's the inclusion of the word "reasonable". That's a common legal-argument adjective, but on the whole, people are not reasonable when it comes to their political or religious beliefs. (You may have noticed that there's been a debate for several centuries now about whether religious belief has anything to do with reason at all, but I think we'll try to stay out of that one). A dedicated atheist may consider it quite reasonable to want, say, any biological publication featuring Francis Collins of NIH to always feature a statement that Collins is a born-again Christian with a strong interest in reconciling his beliefs with scientific practice. An evangelical Christian reader, on the other hand, may want to have the biology papers flagged for the authors who do not see the hand of a Creator in their field of study. Which of these is "reasonable", if either?

The situation doesn't get any easier when you move towards politics. Do we really want to start listing party affiliations or the like? I realize that the journal editors have no intention of doing any such thing, but no one ever intends for the worms to get so far out of the can, either. When a really contentious issue comes up (such as global warming), plenty of reasonable readers (or perhaps I mean readers who are otherwise reasonable!) would want to see the complete political disclosure done on the authors of every paper, the better to sniff out Error, Self-Interest, and Collusion from either side of the debate.

How are we going to draw these particular lines, and how are we going to draw them in any kind of consistent fashion? Consistency is going to be very hard to achieve. The BioCentury piece points out a recent major disclosure glitch by the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine, and if we go into the full empty-out-your-pockets mode, I worry that the arguments may never cease.

And I've even made it to the last paragraph without mentioning the libertarian none-of-your-business objections to the whole idea. Your thoughts?

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Sili on November 4, 2009 8:43 AM writes...

It sounds like it goes too far.

I think everyone knows that Collins is a bit nutty, so it's hardly necessary in his case.

On the other hand, if someone comes out with 'evidence' that condoms don't work, I'd very much like to know if (or I guess rather "how") they're associated with the CC. But that would, again, be easy to see from the academic affiliation in most cases.

So, yeah, one disclosure too far. (Also interesting are the amusing cases documented by Goldacre and Colquhuon where vitamin entrepreneurs and other alties don't seem to see the need mention that they're making a bundle selling some woo-woo product.)

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2. startup on November 4, 2009 10:01 AM writes...

Derek, I think you misconstrue the purpose of this statement. It is written by lawyers to protect the publisher in case some trouble crops up. As such I view it as perfectly acceptable.

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3. Vader on November 4, 2009 10:50 AM writes...

Maybe your last paragraph is on the right track. Requiring reporting of conflicts of interest seems to encourage ad hominem attacks and is at odds with the myth of the disinterested scientist. That's an important myth.

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4. Hap on November 4, 2009 2:10 PM writes...

Just because a publisher wants to use my opinions and character as a human shield doesn't obligate me to assist it - it can choose to publish my paper or not, but if it wishes to impose a fairly significant cost to me, on top of the others they expect me to assume, they shouldn't be surprised if I choose to publish elsewhere.

This policy also seems like an invitation for abuse (ad hominem and otherwise), if nothing else. It may increase membership in the "let me dump out my drawers" school of disclosure management, membership in which trains one to hide relevant disclosures in a sea of irrelevancies. It would be better to disclose actions authors have taken that are likely to impinge directly on the topic of an article -membership in a group with a direct stake in the determination a paper makes, or payment by companies whose products are dealt with in a paper, for example. "Associations" leaves a lot of room for rather indirect statements about an article that have utility mainly as denunciations of the author by people who are unwilling to understand the research, and make it harder for people to sort out the arguments of fact that are at stake.

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5. Hap on November 4, 2009 3:02 PM writes...

The issues that are most contentious are also the most likely to need an external arbiter of "reasonable", because it doesn't seem that reasonableness is reasonable to expect from the participants. Even sane people can lose their reasonableness (and sometimes their humanness) in the midst of arguments, and they usually don't know it. Expecting people to remain reasonable in such cases is...optimistic.

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6. LF Velez on November 4, 2009 3:45 PM writes...

How many authors will recognize and admit that the "free" assistance they receive from writers, editors, and graphic designers at publication companies should be acknowledged as "reasonable" things to disclose?

How many healthcare professionals care to know how much $ was spent on their behalf? How many would bother to find out and then report it? Many readers believe that such support is damaging to the objectivity of the science, and I think that is the rationale behind these new rules.

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7. S Silverstein on November 4, 2009 3:56 PM writes...

"report any personal, professional, or other associations that a reasonable reader would want to know about in relation to the submitted work"

"Personal" and "Professional" covers all the bases, since "institutional" is in the category of either professional or personal, and political & religious are in the category of personal.

Unless one is a professional politician or clergy...

We are destroying our culture with legalorrhea.

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8. The Chemist on November 4, 2009 9:39 PM writes...

Blech. Before any logical thought entered my head about this, I already had a bad taste in my mouth. Either the research stands on its own- or it doesn't. Political and religious leanings only indicate why a scientist might pursue the research in the first place.

FTC guidelines and funding disclosures are a bit different since money has a peculiar way of making people fabricate information that doesn't otherwise exist. It may point to how the research was done- i.e. badly.

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9. CMCguy on November 4, 2009 10:52 PM writes...

Unfortunately the conflict of interest obsession has been building for sometime but is reaching new heights of extremism. There are indeed legitimate potentials for COIs beyond money ties that always need to be appropriately considered however this is reminiscent of "guilty until proven innocent" approach or "zero tolerance" school suspensions for bring a standard kitchen knife in lunch box. If such stereotypes were fully applied would all researchers of India and Chinese Heritages be dismissed out of hand?

So Sili I take offense on your assertion/implication that everyone knows Collins is a bit nuts although believe your context was expression that his believes have been "outed". I have worked with some devote Jews in Science so religion is not necessarily incompatible or manifestation of insanity.

There a saying about "not being to legislate morality" and the above policy likely gives comfort that they are able to cover it for the elitist types such as the Editors probably are

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10. cliffintokyo on November 5, 2009 5:40 AM writes...

I agree with #8.
It should stop at disclosure of obvious financial conflicts of interest, and possibly, professional affiliations.
Your name and institutional address on the title page should be sufficient warning of your responsibility, and discourage anyone from causing their their institute or scientific field to fall into disrepute.

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11. RM on November 5, 2009 3:15 PM writes...

It depends on context - with Francis Collins, his views on religion probably aren't worth mentioning in connection with papers on, say, the effect of various lamin A mutations in Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome. On the other hand, if he's writing papers on the science-religion connection, his religious affiliation might be worth mentioning. I know I would *definitely* want to know if the author of a paper which is favorable toward intelligent design is a board member of the Discovery Institute.

While I don't advocate a witch-hunt or manditory three page disclosures, I think that researchers are a little too quick to check the "no conflict of interest" box. I've seen papers from researchers with the institutional affiliation of drug company X, doing basic science research on drug company X's flagship product, with "The authors declare no conflict of interest" attached. And I think: "Really? Your employment isn't in anyway connected to the continued success of this drug? You wouldn't be tempted even a little to massage the truth if it turned out the drug was a stinker?"

Not that I'm completely clean on this accord. As a graduate student one of my papers got the "no COI" label, despite the fact that a patent was filed on one of the items described. (Not that anyone is actually going to license it, but on principle it isn't the best thing to do.)

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12. DH on November 6, 2009 3:05 PM writes...

"I know I would *definitely* want to know if the author of a paper which is favorable toward intelligent design is a board member of the Discovery Institute."

Why? Do you give an argument for ID more credence if it comes from someone *not* affiliated with the Discovery Institute? I don't.

As The Chemist said in #8, "Either the research stands on its own - or it doesn't."

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13. Owen Hughes on November 8, 2009 7:21 AM writes...

(1) If the ICMJE "rule" for disclosure were a scientific standard used to sort phenomena (those which required disclosure, and those which didn't) it would fall of its own weight as hopelessly subjective. Neither the party asked to disclose associations nor those reading of them will be able to apply the standard consistently, even within a given sample set, let alone across time or among various disclosers.
(2) However worthless it may be, the disclosure will taint the process. Once a putative association is made, everyone who reads it will assume it is "true." Since there is no apparent value to under-disclosure (better safe than sorry, particularly after the ICMJE makes an example of a few "offenders" as part of its effort to acquire and retain control of the role of Morals Tutor) the bias will be toward over-disclosure. More and more questionable or worthless information will fill the system.
(3) The creation and consumption of information is not free. The more complicated and arcane the information (relative to its informative power), the higher the cost. This disclosure is likely to be particularly expensive, because it tells us (almost) nothing about the quality of the science being presented, but it costs the discloser a great deal of effort to figure out what an "association" might mean, how many of them he or she may have (and they will change constantly), and of them how many are "reasonably" relevant to the imaginary reader. On the side of the consumer, the information is expensive because it isn't science, it takes up space and time for the reader to go through it, it needs to be weighed against some standard of relevance and compared to other disclosures by other authors. If Author A reports (otherwise scientifically compelling) research results that X is true, and discloses an association that she has a lapsed subscription to a society whose leaders once declared X to be true, while Author B asserts X cannot be true, and discloses that he is a good friend of a leading proponent of not-X, is the reader better off than before? I think not. I think this activity is unscientific in its intent and its effect, and will discredit the whole enterprise.
(4) I say nothing of the attitude behind such efforts, which betray a paternalism, even a moral arrogance, toward both authors and readers.

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14. Jonadab the Unsightly One on November 9, 2009 7:44 AM writes...

A *discerning* reader can usually figure out the major religious, philosophical, and political biases of the authorship if they are relevant to the subject of the document. It is not, for instance, usually very difficult to tell the difference between a biology paper describing a discovered organism that's been written by an evolutionist versus one written by a creationist. Global warming biases are even more obvious -- when relevant. You don't expect to notice the writer's global warming views in a molecular biology paper, but that's because they're not relevant there. But when they are relevant, you *do* want to pay attention to the author's biases.

This doesn't mean they all need to be written up on the title page, though. Discerning readers ought to be able to figure them out.

There's a school of thought that wants to denigrate such discernment and recast it as judgmental narrow-mindedness. This school of thought goes by various names, but I prefer to call it "anti-intellectualism".

Anyway, my point is, the things that ought to have to be explicitly disclosed are the things a discerning reader *can't* be expected to necessarily figure out just from reading the work itself. Things like, "the author of this review was paid to write it by the company that makes the product" *should* be required to be disclosed.

But things like "the author of this paper believes that global warming is the worst thing humanity has ever done and will shortly kill us all if we don't revert to an agrarian society immediately" don't need to be disclosed. The paper itself discloses such things, if you read it with your brain turned on.

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