Dr Blumsohn just wrote a brilliant essay on the integrity of clinical research for the Professional Ethics Report published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I will quote from his introduction and then his conclusions. (In the center of his essay is a clear discussion of his case, plus mention of some other important cases, well known and not.)
Pharmaceutical companies sell products under the banner of science and medicine. However, their raison d’être is to make money. If industry gets involved in science, it has to balance genuine hypothesis testing and transparency against commercial interests, bureaucracy of drug regulation, and the financial consequences of dishonesty. This is not in itself a criticism – it is a simple fact.Blumsohn concludes:
Universities exist for a different reason – to add to human knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge through publication and teaching. Subtle compromises have allowed the pharmaceutical industry to develop an extraordinary stranglehold over the scientific process, academic discourse, regulatory safeguards and common sense. It is hard to see how safeguards for dispassionate scientific discourse can be sustained when medicine flagrantly disregards them.
The pharmaceutical industry is accused of overturning the usual safeguards of science. The most fundamental of these safeguards is the accountability of authors. Readers of legitimate science expect that stated authors are truly the authors, that they vouch for the work, and that they would be able to defend their findings if challenged. They expect that authors have seen and scrutinized raw data, and would be able to provide that data if asked. That it is necessary to write this indicates how much we have lost.
Industry has been inclined to use universities to give tainted science a veneer of respectability, while denying the very basis of that respectability. 'Ghost-writing' has been repeatedly criticized. However, professional 'medical writers' may sometimes have a legitimate role if clearly acknowledged. By emphasizing the 'writing' aspect, we divert attention from the far more important problem – that of 'ghost science,' of which 'ghost-writing' is only a part.
The usual definitions of scientific misconduct do not apply to pharmaceutical research. In February 2006, Gerald Schatten was accused of research misconduct. His crime was to have coauthored a stem-cell publication with the discredited Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, while shirking the 'responsibilities of verifying the data.' Schatten might have been irked to discover that at the same time, Procter and Gamble Pharmaceuticals (P&G) declared to the media that it was 'standard industry practice' to deny authors access to raw data in drug studies.
The ethical challenge in pharmaceutical medicine is to use available data in the best possible way. Data are derived from human participants who subject themselves to risk in the public interest. They have the right to know that the data derived from their assumption of risk are used properly. When data are closed to scrutiny, even by the supposed authors of research, this cannot constitute an appropriate or ethical use of that data. Patients have to be involved in solving the problem.Bravo!
Most importantly, as academics we need to reassert the importance of data and the
meaning of authorship. We also need to assert “old fashioned” ideas of academic
freedom, our right to speak the truth as we see it, and to allow that truth to be
subjected to open debate.
In the words of George Orwell (1984), 'Freedom is the freedom to say that two
plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.'