Medical journals and the tobacco industry

The BMJ has announced that it will no longer consider consider research funded by the tobacco industry, in whole or part, for publication. It is time, say the editors of the BMJ, Heart,
Thorax, and BMJ Open, “to cease supporting the now discredited notion that tobacco industry funded research is just like any other research”. They cite the increasing evidence that peer review and declaration of funding is not enough: funding can invisibly affect research outcomes and some biases and misconduct are undetectable. The statement recognises that journals have, in the past, unknowingly helped to create and sustain the ignorance or ‘doubt’ about the impact of tobacco on health, so beloved of the industry. This made me wonder what the policies of other journals are.

The Cancer Research Campaign argued in 2000 that journals should not publish articles funded by the tobacco industry, having announced in 1999 that it would not fund any research group that received tobacco money, or was close to one that did so.

In 2010, PLoS Medicine announced that it would no longer publish articles funded by the tobacco industry, saying that, “health research sponsored by tobacco companies is essentially advertising” and that the open access publishing model – where funders cover the costs of publication so that the article is available to all – means that the journal would be accepting money from the tobacco industry. In this decision, it was joining sister publications PLoS Biology and PLoS One.

In 2012, the European Respiratory Society (ERS), publisher of the European Respiratory Journal, announced a ban for life from all ERS activities including publications for anyone with any relation with, or funding by, the tobacco industry after 1 January 2013.  Similarly, The American Thoracic Society will not publish work funded by the tobacco industry, or work whose author has had a relationship with the industry in the past 12 months. Earlier this year, the journal Tobacco Control changed its policy: it will now not consider work funded partly or wholly by the tobacco industry, or indeed the work of any author who accepts tobacco industry funding, and hopes that other journals will follow suit.

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) doesn’t appear to have a ban, but it does stress the importance of full and careful disclosure of funding interests, in 2008 expressing concerns about research foundations housed at academic institutions but with possibly undeclared industry sponsors. The Lancet follows COPE guidelines (as an aside, here’s a case study from COPE, describing some extremely murky doings by an author of a paper on passive smoking) and sets out how funding sources and their role should be made explicit. It will be interesting to see if other journals follow the BMJ’s stance.

The pharmaceutical, food, drink, and other industries sponsor research that is considered and accepted for publication in reputable medical journals. The usual principle is that all research should be judged on its merits. The evidence is published – after peer review and along with the source of the funding used to produce it – and it is open to the scientific community to scrutinise, challenge, clarify, extend or disprove. Despite concerns about the efficacy and transparency of the peer review process in general (see here and here for some recent coverage), the point here is that the behaviour of tobacco companies, and the nature of their product, makes them exceptional. The editors of these journals, understandably sounding a little squeamish, make a strong case.

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