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Declaring an interest

Scientists should be open about articles appearing in their name

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A recent article produces further examples of scientists signing articles which have been ghostwritten on behalf of interest groups. Of equal concern is the growing tendancy to conceal conflicts of interest.

Writing in New Scientist, Rob Edwards exposes further instances of scientists signing articles which they have not written themselves. We have produced evidence of this problem in two papers on this website, mainly in the context of the pharmaceutical industry.

. Now Rob Edwards widens the field of investigation to show that the drug companies are not the only interests to use what the PR industry terms "third party technique". That is, inducing apparently independent authorities to put their names to articles written by spin doctors.

Edwards has been able to show that the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry-funded body in the USA, has hired a 'ghost' author to write pro-nuclear newspaper articles over the signatures of eminent academics. The give-away in this case was that the author had not bothered to write an original article for each case. Time after time, key phrases reappeared, and in a series of articles signed by different scientists the final paragraphs were identical. A severe case of 'great minds thinking alike'?

Even when the scientist has actually written the article, there is, according to Edwards, an increasing failure to declare an interest. He evidences a letter in the British Medical Journal. The scientist concerned was disputing the findings in a recent study of the connection between heart attacks and passive smoking. However, he failed to mention that his own research into passive smoking, which reached the opposite conclusion had been funded by the tobacco industry.

The effect of the 'third party technique' combined with failure to declare conflicts of interest results in readers being misled on important scientific issues. Apart from the damage to the public interest, when these deceptions come to light they can only add to the growing cynicism on the objectivity of science.

As Rob Edwards concludes, 'Scientists who fail to be open in this way tarnish their own name and let down their colleagues by association...There is a clear choice: be absolutely honest or absolutely silent.'

  Rob Edwards, New Scientist 26 June 2004

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