Conflicts of interest SCIENTIFIC CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Going for gold May 17th 2001 From The Economist print edition (May 19th 2001) Scientists should disclose their financial interests, and let the world decide what to think about them ------------------------------------------------ SCIENTISTS at the McDonalds Centre for Obesity Research suggest that eating a hamburger a day actually reduces cholesterol levels. Well, we made that up. However, this kind of company-backed research is becoming more common, and is undermining the fragile trust in science held by a public that has been fed a few too many whoppers. There is good reason for concern. Encouraging private money for science not only gives the boffins more resources; it also creates a useful incentive for them to press on in their quest for truth in ways that will yield measurable benefits to humanity. Unfortunately, money can also create an enticement to stretch the truth somewhat. Several studies have shown that researchers with a financial interest in the outcome of their work tend to publish conclusions that are, oddly enough, positively aligned with their affiliations. That may not surprise cynicsor indeed economists. But it would be a sad thing for science if its sponsors were able to dictate the outcome of research. The editor of the British Medical Journal recently protested strongly against the donation of money by a tobacco firm to a British university (see article). Yet last year, he defended the right of the journal to publish research sponsored by tobacco money. This creates a puzzle. If tobacco-sponsored research is acceptable, as long as it passes the bar of peer review, surely the sponsorship of research centres by tobacco companies should be acceptable, too? Some publications, such as the American Thoracic Societys journal and the British Journal of Cancer, refuse outright to publish tobacco-sponsored research. This is a consistent position, but a dangerous one. Scientific journals are not meant to serve as arbiters of the morality of particular industries. They are meant to publish good research. But as companies increasingly pay researchers grants and expenses, how can journals sift out the unbiased from the biased? The answer is, they cannot. All they can do is to report whatever conflicts a scientist discloses, and take his word that the list is complete. This is not as naive as it sounds. Science has always relied on trust. When researchers submit a paper to a journal, they must vouch that they performed the research they say they did, that they followed experimental protocols correctly, and that they did not tamper with the data or the analysis. It ought not to strain the limits of credibility to ask them to own up to their sources of income too. Science has always had to cope with conflicts of interest. The most awkward one a researcher can face is his own interest in the correctness of his hypotheses. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, points out that scientists often come to believe so strongly in the validity of their theories that they cease to examine them objectively. But this loss of objectivity is overcome by the efforts of other researchers, who are properly sceptical in their outlook. Eventually, faulty ideas are discarded and sound ones prevail. Achieving truthful science depends not on the eradication of bias but on its gradual correction. Printing disclosures of interests, publishing only research that passes rigorous peer review, and then letting the readers decide for themselves whether the research is worthy should be enough. The vigilance of rival scientists, which is up to catching even the tiniest flaws in experimental design, will surely detect any omissions of interest that occur.