Virtually all top medical journals require authors to disclose potential conflicts of interest, but few—just 12%—apply that same medicine to their own editors by publicly disclosing editors’ financial ties to industry, a study has found.
Authors of the study, published 23 July in BMJ Open, called that “paradoxical” given that other analyses have shown that about 50% of editors at such journals in the United States have received payments from industry. “Journal editorial teams are a key player that should apply to themselves the transparency they demand from their authors,” wrote Rafael Dal-Ré of the Autonomous University of Madrid and his co-authors.
They examined 130 journals spanning medical, imaging, and surgery specialties, focusing on the top five most influential ones, as measured by their impact factors, in each of 26 subcategories. In half of the categories, not a single journal publicly disclosed any editor conflicts of interest (COIs), their study found.
Many journals not reporting conflicts have endorsed publication policies that encourage such disclosures: Seventy-three percent of journals examined belong to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which recommends that “editorial COI should be declared, ideally publicly.” What’s more, 45% percent of journals have said they follow the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’s (ICMJE’s) standards, which recommend transparency throughout the publication process to promote trust and credibility.
Hidden financial ties of editors and authors to industry have drawn heightened outside scrutiny since Congress established a public Open Payments database that, beginning in 2013, required medical product manufacturers to disclose their payments to physicians. A separate 2018 study in PLOS ONE by a different team of researchers found that in 2015, about half of 703 editors from 60 influential U.S. journals in six medical specialties received general payments from industry for activities such as consulting and travel; 22% of the 703 received payments of more than $5000. Another study in PLOS ONE found that median payments to editors in seven medical species from 2013 to 2016 were higher compared with all physicians in those specialties.
When contacted by Science, publishers of some journals cited in Dal-Ré’s study as failing to publicly disclose any details about individual editors’ conflicts did not dispute that finding but said they have taken steps to manage them, such as requiring editors to disclose such ties internally and recuse themselves.
For example, The Lancet follows COPE’s and ICMJE’s standards, said Tom Reller, vice president for global communications at Elsevier, its Amsterdam-based publisher. In-house editors must “comply with additional company COI policies and procedures,” he wrote in an email.
A spokesperson for The New England Journal of Medicine wrote in an email that its editors are not allowed “any financial relationships with any biomedical companies” and are required to annually affirm that they do not have any such financial association.
No publications in the Science family of journals appear in Dal-Ré’s study or list of the top-cited medical journals; AAAS in Washington, D.C., publishes Science Translational Medicine and Science Immunology. Their professional editors are required to declare any conflicts of interest and may not hold any financial or management interest in a medical “device, institution, or company.”