One major question that arises is the degree to which conflicts of interest can affect the integrity of the scientific literature. Answering this question is more a matter of social science research rather than biomedical inquiry.
One internal medicine resident at the Mayo Clinic took on this challenge and published such a study, a systematic review, in the British Medical Journal. It is entitled "Association between industry affiliation and position on cardiovascular risk with rosiglitazone: cross sectional systematic review" (BMJ 2010;340:c1344).
Mayo Clinical researchers led by the resident, Amy Wang, examined more than 200 articles that appeared after an analysis in the NEJM linked Avandia to a 43 percent increased risk of heart attacks, and a subsequent clinical trial found no greater danger of heart disease. The results are fascinating. From a summary in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"We aimed to determine whether financial conflicts of interest with pharmaceutical manufacturers could be fueling this fire," wrote the researchers, led by Amy Wang, a resident in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "From our findings, it appears that the answer is yes.
From the BMJ article itself, free full text available as of this writing at link above:
For each article, we sought information about the authors’ financial conflicts of interest in the report itself and elsewhere (that is, in all publications within two years of the original publication and online). Two reviewers blinded to the authors’ financial relationships independently classified each article as presenting a favourable (that is, rosiglitazone does not increase the risk of myocardial infarction), neutral, or unfavourable view on the risk of myocardial infarction with rosiglitazone and on recommendations on the use of the drug.
The "and elsewhere" can be a valuable addition to the capabilities of today's researchers, often enabled via the internet (e.g., non-literature based resources such as conference brochures, personal web pages, corporate and other financial disclosures. etc.) when articles themselves prove unrevealing.
Overall, this is a straightforward methodology, and while potentially subject to bias and expertise issues, nonetheless seems an excellent new contribution to the needed social research on undisclosed COI's.
As to results (see the full article for statistical details I am omitting here):
Of the 202 included articles, 108 (53%) had a conflict of interest statement. Ninety authors (45%) had financial conflicts of interest. Authors who had a favourable view of the risk of myocardial infarction with rosiglitazone were more likely to have financial conflicts of interest with manufacturers of antihyperglycaemic agents in general, and with rosiglitazone manufacturers in particular, than authors who had an unfavourable view. There was likewise a strong association between favourable recommendations on the use of rosiglitazone and financial conflicts of interest. These links persisted when articles rather than authors were used as the unit of analysis, when the analysis was restricted to opinion articles or to articles in which the rosiglitazone controversy was the main focus, and both in articles published before and after the Food and Drug Administration issued a safety warning for rosiglitazone.
While causality is not proven, these results are still stunning. Per the Inquirer's summary:
... Almost 90 percent of scientists who wrote positive articles, reviews, or commentaries about Avandia had financial ties to London-based Glaxo, the study published in the British Medical Journal found.
Almost three of every four authors who expressed negative views of the drug had no financial ties to manufacturers of diabetes medicines, while just 6 percent of those with positive opinions of the drug received no funding or fees from industry.
The authors cite prior literature also demonstrating an associations of COI with pro-industry views (references 2-6; #2 is regarding the mid 1990's calcium channel blocker controversy).
The authors observe that:
In the past decade, research and policy has focused on this association [between COI and pro-industry views - ed.], leading to important progress in policies to manage and encourage disclosure of such financial conflicts of interest.
Their findings about the effects of this "progress" was particularly disappointing, that only about half of the articles carried conflict-of-interest statements:
One wonders about the publishers of the articles themselves omitting COI statements, either acknowledging possible COI's or confirming that no COI's exist.
Of the 202 eligible studies (10 reported original research, 91 were letters, editorials, or commentaries, and 101 were reviews, meta-analyses, or guidelines), 108 articles (53%) included a conflict of interest statement. [The other 47% did not - ed.]
... A total of 90 (45%) of the 202 articles were authored by individuals who had financial conflicts of interest. Of the 90 studies with conflicts of interest, 69 (77%) had a statement disclosing the conflict of interest in the article itself. The other 21 studies with financial conflicts of interest (23%) did not disclose these relationships, which were discovered through searching other publications by the same author or the internet. Three (14%) of these 21 studies published a statement declaring no conflicts of interest. [Oops - ed.]
So, almost one quarter of articles with author COI did not disclose that fact, and several misrepresented the issue.
Finally, the pharmaceutical company's view, also published in the Inquirer article cited above:
A Glaxo spokeswoman said the company posted information and results from all its clinical trials on its Web site.
"It's vital that people have trust in the way we do research and the way it's made public," Jo Revill, Glaxo spokeswoman, said yesterday. "Part of that is sharing data. What we have done is develop policies that will have disclosure and encourage disclosure."
"Encouraging" disclosure of COI's is far too weak a stand for a pharmaceutical company to take on such a critical issue, in my view.
The Mayo researchers wisely conclude:
Disclosure rates for financial conflicts of interest were unexpectedly low, and there was a clear and strong link between the orientation of authors’ expressed views on the rosiglitazone controversy and their financial conflicts of interest with pharmaceutical companies. Although these findings do not necessarily indicate a causal link between the position taken on the cardiac risk of rosiglitazone in patients with diabetes and the authors’ financial conflicts of interest, they underscore the need for further changes in disclosure procedures in order for the scientific record to be trusted.
Finally, I add that these findings are not too surprising. It's human nature not to bite the hand that feeds you. Money is also a powerful stimulant to the brain's rationalization (as opposed to rational) centers.
We as a culture do truly need to understand the potential corrosive effects on the scientific literature of dysfunctions such as ghostwriting, financial and other conflicts of interest, publish-or-perish pressures of academia, and other such social issues.
These practices also simply need to be abolished, for as I have written before on these pages ("Has Ghostwriting Infected The Experts With Tainted Knowledge, Creating Vectors for Further Spread and Mutation of the Scientific Knowledge Base?"), once a "critical mass" of faux knowledge is put into circulation via the scientific literature, even the ostensibly impartial experts' views can become tainted, dependent as they are on that very same scientific literature. Even worse, we don't know what that critical mass is - or whether we've reached it already.