Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Journal Latest to Confront Conflicts of Interest

Journal editors are always keen to ask authors to disclose individual contributions to papers and potential conflicts of interest. Today, the editors of PLoS Medicine published an editorial calling for editors to do exactly the same because their "political and scientific views, personal relationships, and professional and financial interests can all conceivably interfere with the objectivity of their decisions."

An example is the added financial incentive of publishing papers likely to be reprinted as best sellers, when editorial boards have to consider the journal's survival in an increasingly competitive world in addition to scientific merit.

The editorial identifies another four issues that contribute to bias in medical literature and a lack of transparency in scientific publishing, namely, recognition of interests beyond commercial, the problem of ghost writing, undisclosed original protocols, and the bias toward publishing only "exciting" results.

Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, says that "it's a good editorial, pulling together issues that have been well aired before but which remain important, and it's excellent that PLoS is championing ethical publishing in this way." For the time being, the BMJ guidelines for publishing address all these concerns "except that at the moment we ask authors, reviewers, and editors to declare only financial competing interests," says Godlee, "but this policy is under review, and the plan is to extend the requirement to nonfinancial competing interests as well."

Katrina Kelner, deputy editor for life sciences at Science, agrees that "bias in publication of medically relevant results is a serious problem and that journals can be one place where efforts can be made to make sure that such bias is minimized." According to Kelner, Science already follows most of the guidelines presented by the PLoS editorial. She also points out that open access is not the only way to avoid conflicts of interest introduced by reprint sales. If editorial departments are kept strictly separate from journal business management, editors should never be aware of reprint sales, Kelner adds, citing Science's example.

"The concepts raised by the PLoS editors are important but not new and have been addressed by our organization," says Margaret Winkler, president of the World Association of Medical Editors. Winkler points out an additional issue that the editorial misses, required for full transparency in medical literature, namely, the requirement that "authors register clinical trials at trial outset rather than after they determine that the results, or which results, are to their liking."