Scientists are erupting in outrage on this otherwise sleepy August day. The cause? Cyagen, a purveyor of transgenic research mice, is seemingly offering its scientist customers cash if they cite one of their products in a published paper. But a company spokesman says it’s all a misunderstanding.
The saga began late this past June, according to Cyagen spokesman Austin Jelcick, when the company sent out an email promoting a special offer. It was titled: "Cite us in your publication and earn $100 or more based on your journal's impact factor!"
In recent days, some bloggers and Twitter users took note—and expressed outrage. At best, some argued, the offer was a seamy inducement. At worst, it amounted to a kind of payola scheme—and a potential financial conflict of interest that researchers should disclose.
"If someone receives money from [a company] and their publication discusses that company’s products, then this needs to be declared in the paper," prominent science blogger Ben Goldacre wrote today. He also reposted a list of the 164 papers that acknowledge using Cyagen's transgenic mice, none of which declare the deal as a potential conflict of interest. Goldacre encouraged journal editors to investigate the authors for receiving "undisclosed funds in exchange for a citation."
The Internet reaction was swift. “I got this email & didn't even read it,” read one Tweet from @robgpoole. “Totally outrageous. Can the commodification of evidence be reversed?”
At Cyagen, officials are struggling to keep up with the hate mail. The offer was months old, Jelcick notes, but it was “suddenly blowing up on us."
But the deal is not exactly what it seems at first glance, Jelcick says. For one thing, it is for store credit, not cash. And the "citation" that Cyagen asks for is nothing more than a mention in the methods section of a paper if Cyagen mice were indeed used for the experiment—something that is already required by most journals, in part to assist in faithfully reproducing an experiment. So, in essence, the company was rewarding researchers for something they already do.
Meanwhile, two of the authors from the list of 164 papers says they aren't sure they see a problem. "I do not see a conflict of interest," developmental biologist Vincent Christoffels of the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands wrote in an email. "In my opinion this is not different from any other discount you often get when buying lab equipment, antibodies, transgenic services etc. Just makes science a little less expensive... [R]egardless of any discount they give, Cyagen is mentioned in the methods section of any paper containing data involving their services. And the choice of journal is also not influenced by the discount."
Neil Shubin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, acknowledged using Cyagen mice in a paper published 22 December 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The paper declares no conflict of interest (COI). "We didn't get the discount for the work of the paper... so I don't see the need to either acknowledge it or list it as a COI," Shubin wrote in an email. "We listed it in methods in a level of detail where others could repeat our efforts."
"In general," Shubin continued, "if an investigator gets a special discount from a vendor, then they receive a kind of financial support to be acknowledged in the acknowledgments section. I'm not sure that this kind of discount from a vendor rises to the level of COI because it could not reasonably be construed to bias results, interpretation, etc."
Goldacre isn't convinced. "It took a long time to get researchers and journals to take financial conflict of interest seriously,” he wrote in an email. “Along the way, various interest groups have tried to argue that their particular specific financial incentive won't really influence behavior, so it shouldn't be declared. But nobody serious [sic] thinks a financial 'conflict of interest' automatically proves that you are a corrupt scientist. It is simply a transparent declaration of a condition, so that others can be aware. And also, realistically, to set a cultural norm so that there is no wiggle room or ambiguity about declaring the very big financial stuff."
The offer, by the way, is still good, Cyagen says. But the company is considering backtracking on the formula for payout, which is currently $100 times the Impact Factor of the journal, a much-maligned metric of journal importance. So a mention in a journal with an impact factor of 30 would be worth $3,000. "We're considering switching to an equal payment for any journal,” he says, “so we can distance ourselves from that whole debate."
Updated, 16 August 2015, 8:30 a.m.: This item has been updated to clarify comments from Neil Shubin. Comments from Vincent Christoffels were added.