Sunday, January 24, 2016



Medical journals are supposed to promote professional values – scientific, social, and ethical. Quality matters, in each of these domains. Lately, however, highly ranked journals are failing in respect of ethics commentaries. Some editors seem happy to publicize or even to co-author commentaries that are dismissive of current ethics initiatives – like transparency of data reporting and disclosure of conflicts of interest (COI). That’s one way for journals to jump the shark in the race for ratings. They surely get attention and applause in some quarters – but those stunts are net negatives for the journals. Here is one example.

Last fall, JAMA went splashy with a sappy Viewpoint article on conflict of interest by Anne R. Cappola and Garret A. FitzGerald. Anne Cappola is also an associate editor of JAMA – what a coincidence! The article was a Pollyanna piece by these two professors at Penn, promoting pushback on perceived pharmascolds, but really just papering over the problem of COI. The sappy formula? They declared conflict of interest to be a pejorative term that should be replaced by confluence of interest. This casuistry was backed up by wishful thinking and hortatory hand waving, weakly argued. Mostly, it gave the impression that the authors, presuming to speak for investigators generally, were offended by the increasing regulations for managing COI. Those developments have occurred at the Federal, institutional, and publication levels. Worse, the authors ignored the reality of recent corruption that led to those new regulations. That uncomfortable fact was airbrushed out of their discussion. In response, one critic of confluence of interest, writing on the COI blog, aptly raised a comparison to Wall Street: “The phrase also reminds me of a statement by then king-of-the-hill securities analyst Jack Grubman: “What used to be a conflict is now a synergy.” (Three years later Grubman was fined $15 million dollars and barred from the industry for life for what were apparently still considered COIs.)”

The Viewpoint article appeared on-line September 24, 2015, and four days later I sent a critical reply to JAMA. The printed version of the Viewpoint article appeared November 3, 2015, and on 4 December, 2015 I was notified that JAMA chose not to publish my letter to the editor. During the following six weeks, now nearly five months since it appeared, JAMA published no replies whatsoever to the Viewpoint article. Could it be that JAMA has deep sixed all the responses? That’s one way to manage bad publicity, but it is inconsistent with the standards we expect of a journal like JAMA. Here is the text of my letter to the editor of JAMA. Keep in mind that there is only so much one can say within a limit of 400 words and 5 references.

LETTER TO EDITOR, JAMA 09-28-2015            Text word count 389
                                                                                5 references


In their recent Viewpoint (1), Anne Cappola and Garret FitzGerald recommended replacing the term conflict of interest (COI) with confluence of interest, declaring a pejorative connotation of the term conflict. A better suggestion would have been competing interest, which already is in wide use (2) and which does not paper over the problem. The authors did not frankly acknowledge the gravity of recent COI scandals that led to the situation they decry. Sadly, there are real, common, serious, and unacceptable conflicts of interest. Boundaries are needed, and the authors’ effort to weaken the boundaries is misguided.
Their case for re-framing COI more benignly as a confluence of interests is weakly argued. For instance, they warned of concern that current policies on COI “… might restrain innovation and delay translation of basic discoveries to clinical benefit.” (1) They produced no evidence for that speculative assertion, though they said it was a key reason for their endeavor. Moreover, COI policies do not demonize collaboration with industry. We once had an honorable tradition of interacting with industry while retaining our integrity as clinical scientists. That tradition broke down when academic investigators in many specialties were coöpted as key opinion leaders (KOLs) by the marketing departments of corporations. There followed an era of corruption in corporate-funded and KOL-managed continuing medical education and journal supplements; of experimercials disguised as KOL-initiated clinical trials (3); of rampant, biased ghostwriting, commissioned by corporations and often with cynical honorary KOL authorship; and of selective analyses of clinical trials data designed to exaggerate benefits, minimize harms, and maximize markets (4). We can readily agree with the Viewpoint authors that these practices had the effect of “biasing the interpretation of results, exposing patients to harm, and damaging the reputation of an institution and investigator” (1). Inevitably, those practices and individuals were exposed, which led to Congressional action and to staggering legal penalties (over $3 billion in the case of GlaxoSmithKline) (5). In response, COI policies were strengthened at the Federal and institutional levels and, of course, they now inconvenience everybody. Such is the way of bureaucracies. As we survey the aftermath, we should direct our annoyance to the many opportunistic investigators who entered into those compromised relationships with industry. It makes no sense now to shoot the messengers or to use sophistry in an attempt to define the problem away.

The author declares no competing financial interest or other conflict of interest.


(1) Cappola AR, FitzGerald GA. Confluence, not conflict of interest: Name change necessary. JAMA. Published online September 24, 2015. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.12020.
(2) James A, Horton R, Collingridge D, McConnell J, Butcher J. The Lancet's policy on conflicts of interest––2004. Lancet. 2004; 363 (9402):2-3.
(3) Carroll BJ. Sertraline and the Cheshire cat in geriatric depression. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2004; 161(6): 1145-1146.
(4) LeNoury J, Nardo JM, Healy D, Jureidini J, Raven M, Tufanaru C, Abi-Jaoude E. Restoring Study 329: efficacy and harms of paroxetine and imipramine in treatment of major depression in adolescence. BMJ. 2015;351:h4320.
(5) U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs. GlaxoSmithKline to Plead Guilty and Pay $3 Billion to Resolve Fraud Allegations and Failure to Report Safety Data. July 2, 2012. Accessed 09-25-2015.

So, yes, Virginia, there is real COI and there is real corruption in medical science. You cannot make them go away by wishing them away. And, JAMA, if you allow your editors to promote divisive, weak, and problematic ethics positions, at least have the decency to allow debate.

Bernard Carroll.


Anonymous said...

Confluence = convergence, conjunction, meeting. So when I declare that I have no confluence of interest in writing this comment, why then am I writing it? Makes no sense, but that was obvious.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your workDr. Carroll. I have had personal experience with self serving JAMA editors. One even ignored patient harms and was rewarded with the plum assignment of a chief trustee at a large educational institution.

Judy B said...

The level of cognitive dissonance in this and other debacles is mind boggling!

Anonymous said...

Yes, it would be understandable had they selected a different letter to make similar points, but ridiculous that they published nothing differing! Thanks, Dr. Carroll.

Bernard Carroll said...

Thanks, Anonymous. A new print edition of JAMA is out today and there is still nothing.

Anonymous said...

it might help to dial back the hyperbole