January 26, 2010
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service
Dr. George Glanzberg, like many veterinarians, reads human as well as veterinary medical literature.
So it has not escaped his attention that in human medicine, controversy has erupted over the apparent failure of a number of study authors to report conflicts of interest and the editors of some prestigious peer-reviewed journals to ferret out such relationships.
Critics contend that financial or professional ties can cloud objectivity, and in turn, skew research outcomes. Glanzberg, a small-animal practitioner in Vermont, surmises that if unreported conflicts are of concern in human medical literature, they’re likely to be a problem in veterinary literature as well, even if the stakes are not as high.
It’s a concern that’s not deeply shared by many veterinary journal editors, according to a recent poll conducted by the VIN News Service (VNS) regarding whether unreported conflicts are rife in the profession’s publications. Yet Glanzberg and others consider conflict of interest statements to be paramount to the transparency and openness that’s needed to ensure the integrity of all scientific literature.
Putting it simply, he said, “I’d like to have the option of knowing what I am reading.”
Glanzberg originally expressed his concerns in a 2006 Veterinary Information Network (VIN) discussion when he challenged a Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) policy to not print a conflicts of interest statement following the studies that it publishes. Such statements are common in publications like the New England Journal of Medicine.
While his concerns initially failed to attract much attention on the VIN message boards, the topic was reawakened last August when the New York Times revealed that Wyeth had paid ghostwriters to author 26 scientific papers backing the use of hormone replacement therapy in women. Those works, the Times article suggested, were then signed by physicians and published in 18 peer-reviewed medical journals, crafting a medical consensus that benefited sales of Wyeth’s Prempro and Premarin.
VIN members also reacted to news that Merck and Elsevier created fake medical journals to market drugs without disclosing the drug company’s sponsorship.
(Merck and Wyeth, now sold to Pfizer, each maintain animal health subsidiaries that make pharmaceuticals used in veterinary medicine.)
Then last September, the Journal of the American Medical Association published results of an in-house survey that showed ghostwriting is extremely common. Results from the online questionnaire crafted for the study showed that of the authors who responded, 8 percent admitted that they had published a paper that contained a significant contribution from an unacknowledged person.
The survey did not ask whether industry was involved in these situations, but that clearly was the implication.
Responding to these reports and a growing awareness that drug companies have become an even more significant driver of medical research and its publication, medical journal editors have drafted a standardized form for reporting financial conflicts of interest. They hope this form will be more comprehensive than others used in the past and make reporting less confusing for potential authors. The form was unveiled by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) in October.
The committee cannot force journals to use the form but urges that they do.
To determine what role, if any, potential conflicts of interest play in veterinary literature, the VNS recently contacted a handful of veterinary medical publications.
All the veterinary journal editors reached by the VNS said that they were aware of the new ICMJE form and the growing awareness of the conflicts problem in human medicine. They noted that there is no similar effort underway for veterinary journals.
Nor is there as much of a need, the majority of the editors stated.
Why? Because the large, Big Pharma-sponsored clinical trials that populate human medicine are uncommon in veterinary medicine, they said. In fact, most veterinary-related studies are funded by government entities like the National Institutes of Health, various foundations or not at all. Even when funding comes from grants or industry, the trials tend to be small with less at stake, they added.
What’s more, it is much harder to hide conflicts of interest in veterinary medicine than in human medicine, noted Dr. Kurt J. Matushek, JAVMA’s editor-in-chief. Considering the veterinary research community is relatively small, reviewers are usually familiar with authors and their clinics or laboratories.
“It can be self-policing, up to a point,” he said.
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