Science isn't above commerce

Published: Saturday 15 August 2009

-- The high costs of publishing traditional journals open the door for sponsored content

In April 2009, an online life sciences magazine, carried a curious story about a journal called The Australasian Journal of Bone and Medicine that was published in the early part of the century. The journal published by the reputed publisher Elsevier reprinted articles from other Elsevier journals and carried some news and reviews. Nothing unusual, except the journal was fully paid for by Merck and was started with the express intent of supporting drugs made by the pharmaceutical giant. Worse still, Elsevier "conveniently" forgot to mention this "relationship" in the journal which was possibly read by hundreds of doctors who took the plugged pieces as genuine medical research.

"Sponsored content" is not new to publications advertorials are common in newspapers and magazines, with the recent ones being so cleverly done that one can't make out the difference between opinion and advertisement unless one looks hard. But scientific publishing was supposed to be above all this. This episode, involving two of the biggest and most reputed names in their respective industries, dispels all doubts about science being above commerce.

Years ago, it was fairly common, especially in medicine, for sponsored research to be published in reputed journals. In the cut-throat world of academia, where publish or perish is the mantra, researchers would welcome money from any source to carry out their work and advance their careers. The disclosure norms for authors were not stringent and scientists took money for research from industry (the pharmaceutical industry being the major one), and published their findings without anyone being any wiser. Not surprisingly, the research was usually never unfavourable to the paymasters.

Down to Earth
In the cut-throat world of publish or perish, many researchers would welcome money from any source
Then sometime in the mid-1980s, it was realized that something needed to be done to curb the growing abuse of "peer-reviewed scientific publication" by the industry the pharmaceutical, the tobacco and health supplement industries being the prime culprits. Several journals had policies whereby the authors had to disclose any financial interests with the industry. The ambit of financial interests was not restricted to just research support but also included equity and consultancies with the companies. The New England Journal of Medicine (nejm), for instance, as early as 1984 introduced disclosure norms for its authors. Other reputed journals also introduced similar policies and it was felt that the problem had been solved.

However, in 1996, nejm reported a solicited editorial comment on a paper published in the journal on the impact of certain anti-obesity drugs on pulmonary hypertension had been written by consultants for a major producer of anti-obesity drugs. Of course, the journal set the record straight after this fact was pointed out to them.

But what about the many journals that slipped out? It is, after all, fairly easy to find a "respectable sounding" journal somewhere in the world, less interested in the "colour" of research, and more in publishing. And once a piece is published in a journal which no one in the scientific community reads or refers, the company can just refer to that paper in its advertising claiming "scientific" credibility. The extraordinary amounts of money at stake in industries like pharmaceutical and medical diagnostics coupled with the high cost of publishing traditional journals, makes the model susceptible to abuse.

Internet initiatives like the Public Library of Science are yet to acquire the level of scientific respectability as some of the older journals like nejm and Nature. Researchers feel they stand to gain more from publishing in the reputed journals than in open source ones. One can only hope Creative Commons initiatives will become as respectable for the scientific community as the older print journals.

Shobhit Mahajan is professor at the Department of Physics and Astrophysics, University of Delhi

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