Online Comments Lead to BMJ’s Disclosure of Competing Interests

March 17, 2011

16 MarIn BMJ, Bob Roehr wrote about a report published by German researchers in the Canadian Medical Association Journal describing an apparent tendency for journals that accept pharmaceutical advertising to publish more positive drug-related articles than those that depend on subscription dollars to pay the bills. The study and the Roehr’s summary are good reading in their own right, but the comment section is where things really get interesting.

by ANDREW VAN DAM
Health Journalism

There, Age of Autism UK editor John Stone points to a commentary penned by the Alliance for Human Research Protection’s Vera Hassner Sharav and draws into question BMJ’s sources of funding. His main focus is the tension between that publication’s Andrew Wakefield investigations and its receipt of money from an arm of Merck.

Sharav’s language is somewhat incendiary, but it’s BMJ editor Fiona Godlee’s response to her commentary (and Stone’s post) that push the whole thing into the realm of the remarkable. Godlee weighs in on everything right there in the comment thread, admitting that BMJ had not disclosed those conflicts of interest in the Wakefield stories simply “because it didn’t occur to us to do so,” given that it was a story focused on research fraud rather than upon vaccines and medicine.

Although Vera’s claims may seem far fetched on this occasion, she is right that we should have declared the BMJ Group’s income from Merck as a competing interest to the editorial (and the two editor’s choice articles) that accompanied Brian Deer’s series on the Secrets of the MMR scare. We should also, as you say, have declared the group’s income from GSK as a competing interest in relation to these articles. We will publish clarifications.

The whole chain of events is a promising sign that increased interactivity in online publications may lead to increased transparency, and it’s well worth reading, at the very least, all of Roehr’s story and the comments that follow it. All the key bits are there.

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