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How Science Is Corrupted May 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which, in modern societies, we are utterly dependent on science. It profoundly effects almost every aspect of our lives, and our future is bound up with the continued success of science.

In the classroom, I put a lot of emphasis on the fact that scientific results have credibility only if the public, self-correcting mechanisms of science are allowed to function so that scientific objectivity is maintained. When they don’t function well, people are harmed.

So stories about Big Pharma’s attempts to suppress or distort research results are disturbing because, if those practices become widespread, part of the foundation of modern society will be at risk. The latest story involves the publishing industry as well.

A few years ago, the painkiller Vioxx was taken off the market because there was evidence it caused heart attacks. The manufacturer, Merck, was sued, and during the course of the lawsuits it was alleged that research results showing increase risk of heart attacks were ignored and kept from the public by Merck officials. Merck has never admitted wrongdoing, but they have paid out millions in damages to the families of victims.

Vioxx cases are still being litigated in Australia and these cases have produced new revelations, this time involving Merck and the publisher Elsevier, a major publisher of academic research in a variety of fields. From The Guardian via Brian Leiter:

The relationship between big pharma and publishers is perilous. Any industry with global revenues of $600bn can afford to buy quite a lot of adverts, and pharmaceutical companies also buy glossy expensive “reprints” of the trials it feels flattered by. As we noted in this column two months ago, there is evidence that all this money distorts editorial decisions.

This time Elsevier Australia went the whole hog, giving Merck an entire publication which resembled an academic journal, although in fact it only contained reprinted articles, or summaries, of other articles. In issue 2, for example, nine of the 29 articles concerned Vioxx, and a dozen of the remainder were about another Merck drug, Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions. Some were bizarre: such as a review article containing just two references….It turns out that Elsevier put out six such journals, sponsored by industry. The Elsevier chief executive, Michael Hansen, has now admitted that they were made to look like journals, and lacked proper disclosure. “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,” he said.

Doctors, especially general practitioners, don’t have time to read every journal article regarding the latest research. They rely on summaries and brief surveys  looking for information relevant to their practice. Fake “Journals” published to look like the real thing by allegedly reputable publishing houses don’t help. Their only purpose is to deceive.

As Ben Goldacre, the author of the Guardian article says:

In a sensible world, countries would band together and pay for comparative research themselves, and the free, open distribution of the results, to prevent all this nonsense.

We do not live in a sensible world.

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