In the food and nutrition world, science is king. So when journals do not force scientists to fully disclose financial support and potential conflicts of interest, they are not helping anyone.
Science is an open-ended pursuit with hypotheses gaining or losing credence based on additional studies. But when journals publish articles from researchers who do not divulge potential conflicts, they are complicit in distorting the evidence and affecting the reader's ability to judge the reliability of science overall.
The seed for this comment was planted months ago at the announcement from the Journal of the Medical Association (JAMA) that all authors submitting manuscripts to JAMA are now required to report all potential conflicts. Such measures were already in place at JAMA since the early 1980s, but some researchers were not disclosing every little bit of information because they didn't think that their past and present funding from big business represented a conflict.
One such example that prompted Catherine DeAngelis, JAMA's editor-in-chief, to act was when researchers reporting on a potential link between migraines and cardiovascular disease (CVD) failed to mention they had received money from big pain-killer makers.
The authors, from Harvard no less, felt that previous relationships with manufacturers of products that are used in the control and management of migraines or CVD did not constitute a conflict of interest. DeAngelis rightly disagreed and the Harvard authors subsequently disclosed all non-federal relationships, which read like a who's who of the world's biggest chemical and pharmaceutical companies.
Such situations are also found in the food and dietary supplements industries.
Take the glucosamine/chondroitin sulphate study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in March that reported the supplements were effective for moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis pain, a point that was down-played by the authors and in an independent editorial by Dr. Marc Hochberg from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
NEJM requires full disclosure and we discover in the small print that both the authors and Dr. Hochberg have received money from pharmaceutical companies who produced anti-arthritis drugs. Is it any wonder that the findings that were played up were pharma-centric?
The other journals must now follow the full disclosure lead of these big journals and introduce such measures. Many already do, but many others do not.
Recently the Journal of the American College of Nutrition published a supplement on salt intake, with many of the articles down-playing the risk of excessive salt consumption. Supplements to this journal, we later found out, do not undergo normal peer-review proceedings.
No conflict of interest disclosures were presented by the authors, although it turned out later that some have been or still are consultants to the salt industry.
No disclosure - Why?
It is outrageous that after all the knocks that peer-review has suffered in recent years - from made up results in The Lancet to fake cloning in Science - that the journals are not demanding full disclosure, whether they are in a regular issue or a supplement - they're still published under the name of the journal and therefore benefit from its reputation.
With so much research now funded by for-profit companies, industry has a key role to play in ensuring the integrity of publications, but the push itself, particularly when research in not funded by companies whose products are being tested, must come from the journals themselves.
Industry can help by suggesting that researchers presenting research funded by companies should be published in journals that demand full disclosure, or insist on full disclosure in other, less stringent, journals.
But transparency does go beyond the journals. Companies should also refrain from publicizing unpublished research, which undermines their credibility - why hasn't it been published in a peer-review journal? What's wrong with letting some other experts take a look at the data?
A survey released in July by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which found that one in six of the nearly 1,000 FDA scientists who responded said they had their work manipulated or suppressed in favour of industry.
This is a massive problem and until it is addressed on a worldwide scale, the seriousness of some journals will remain questionable. It's time that everyone started cleaning up their act.
If science is king, then transparency is the key to the kingdom.
Stephen Daniells is the Food Science Reporter for NutraIngredients.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.
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