PubMed pushes for transparency in new policy

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Speed read

  • Conflict-of-interest statements are not usually linked to study abstracts
  • PubMed’s new policy will now include the disclosures
  • But PubMed will let journal publishers decide whether to provide the information

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[MANILA] PubMed, the leading database of abstracts from medical and life science journals, will include authors’ conflict-of-interest statements and link them to abstracts so they are accessible on search pages.

“I see it as a big step forward,” Marion Nestle, a nutrition scientist at New York University, tells SciDev.Net. “Conflict-of-interest statements usually appear in papers just above the references. You need to have the whole paper to see them, which is difficult because so many scientific journals keep papers behind paywalls.”

“So the real question is whether journals will change their own abstract policies.”

Marion Nestle, New York University

Most journals require authors to disclose funding and conflicts. To simplify reporting to PubMed, all they need to do is move the information to the abstract or connect it to the abstract. PubMed is leaving it up to journal publishers to provide the information.

“So the real question is whether journals will change their own abstract policies,” says Nestle, also author of foodpolitics.com, a blog that tracks industry-funded studies.

The free search engine’s new policy was announced in a technical bulletin published in March by the National Library of Medicine (NLM). It comes over a year after a group of scientists, physicians, organisations, and a handful of US senators sent a letter to the NLM and the National Institutes of Health asking them to publish the disclosers.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit that was part of the group that sent the letter, says he is delighted to hear news of PubMed’s new policy.

“Conflicts-of-interest increase as studies move from basic to applied research,” Jacobson tells SciDev.Net. “Studies of drugs, medical devices and foods are far likelier to be sponsored by relevant industries than are studies in math journals.”

Jacobson says scientific studies sponsored by industry may affect government policies and physician practices and result in commercial products that are less likely to promote the public’s health.

“It is important that people recognise that even though a study has been sponsored by commercial interests, it may still be perfectly valid and, conversely, an independently-funded study conducted by researchers not having conflicts-of-interest may still be of low quality and unreliable,” says Jacobson.

While the impact of PubMed’s new policy is awaited, others in the industry are similarly inclined. Recently, the Journal of American Medical Association devoted an entire issue to articles about conflict-of-interest.

“This is a major issue in science these days and PubMed’s decision reflects its importance,” says Nestle.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.