The old axiom about the squeaky wheel getting the grease extends to the murky world of industry-sponsored research. Pressure applied in recent years by watchdogs, scientists, academics, and the public has prompted greater disclosure in scientific journals and federal databases.
Some advocacy organizations keep close tabs on industry-funded reports in an effort to hold corporations accountable.
The Union of Concerned Scientists operates The Disinformation Playbook, an online destination that features case studies about tactics corporations use to manipulate science and misinform the public.
“Because of these bad examples, perhaps public opinion—and public trust— in these studies has decreased,” Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Tarbell. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust the findings of all industry-funded studies.”
Reports that accurately disclose funders and undergo peer review and publication in respected academic journals are more trustworthy than research that falls short of those benchmarks, she said.
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Another site worth checking regularly is PubMed, a widely used federal database that publishes medical and scientific papers. Last year, the site added conflict of interest disclosures below abstracts that summarize studies. The move was in response to pressure from nonprofit organizations, scientists, physicians, and five Democratic U.S. senators.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, chartered by the U.S. Congress, strengthened its financial conflict of interest policies in April 2017 following criticism that some reports it had published failed to disclose corporate ties.
Anonymous posters can highlight everything from plagiarism to flawed methodology to industry tentacles on PubPeer.com. The site is operated by a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving scientific research through community interaction. The controversial website was founded anonymously by a neuroscientist who later revealed his identity as he sought philanthropic support for the venture.
Tobacco Control is an international peer-reviewed journal that’s a repository for research on smoking, cigarettes and related products. In addition to revealing funders, authors must disclose any financial ties to organizations connected to the research.
Drugwatch is a for-profit website that partners with media and legal experts to provide accurate information about prescription drugs. Click here for its coverage of Big Pharma’s role in clinical trials, which are now mostly funded by drug manufacturers.
While these online destinations can be useful, Sheldon Krimsky, a humanities and social sciences professor at Tufts University, laments that there is no single destination where people can turn for details about industry research on food additives, chemicals, and other products.
“They don’t have a place they can go to say, ‘Tell me what’s good and tell me what’s not good,’” he told Tarbell. On the wish list for him and other critics:
- More federal funding of studies authored by independent parties not tethered to corporate patrons.
- Greater transparency by U.S. government agencies that rely on industry studies. Beyond disclosure of funders, agencies should weigh such research against independently produced reports.
- Firewalls that prevent industry sponsors from influencing research and conclusions.
- Independent, non-profit national institutes to conduct testing underwritten by corporations.
- Strict, universal disclosure policies for all academic and scientific journals and websites that publish research.
To dissuade companies from burying reports, National Institutes of Health guidelines call for the release of outlines in advance. The goal is to make it tougher for companies to renege. With access to such material, third parties would know that a study was never released.
But there’s a loophole: The guidelines are voluntary, making it easy for companies to suspend reports that don’t produce desired results, Dr. Jerome Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, explained.
If corporate sponsors really want to gain the public’s trust, they should never bury results or studies that don’t reinforce their goals, Reed said. The scientific process works best when conclusions are shaped by the weight of all available evidence, she observed. “They should show us all of their work, because that’s what we would expect from independent scientists.”