A new study from researchers at the University of Toronto finds that fully half of the editors of academic journals in the health sciences receive payments from pharmaceutical and medical device companies. The data indicates that editors are being targeted by the companies for their potential influence, say the study’s authors.
The world of academic journal publishing is an often murky one, with editors playing a primary role in determining what scientific research gets to be legitimized through publication. Editors are tasked with triaging new manuscripts as they come in and in deciding which ones will get sent out for external review and, ultimately, which will get published. Thus, their work is weighty, as lab funding and sometimes whole careers can rest on whether and how often a group’s research makes it into one of the top journals of their respective field.
Which is why the financial ties between industry and journal editors needs to be made more transparent, say the authors of a study published in the British Journal of Medicine.
“Journal editors wield enormous power,” say the authors, who are affiliated with the Department of Medicine and the Institute for Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the U of T as well as the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. “They are the individuals who determine a substantial amount of the content and conclusions of what appears in their journals, including article selection, article content, and which articles have accompanying editorials.”
The researchers looked at 52 top-tier health sciences journals in the United States and cross-referenced the editorial staff with payments disclosed by various pharmaceutical or medical device companies for the year 2014. They found that of the 713 editors, 361 (50.6 per cent) had received payments that year, made out to editors personally rather than for specific research projects. The study found that in most cases, the payments were made under the heading of honorariums, patent royalties, food, beverage and travel expenses or consulting fees.
“Payments to editors are quite common, and they can be substantial,” says study lead author Jessica Liu, assistant professor and internal medicine physician with U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, in a U of T press release.
“We think journals should reconsider their conflict-of-interest policies and think about having transparent, readily accessible conflict-of-interest policies for editors, given they play such a crucial role in shaping health care research,” says Liu.
The study found that only 30 per cent of health sciences journals have available editorial conflict-of-interest policies and that for those that do, standards varied considerably, with only some requiring recusal of an editor in cases of identified conflict of interest and most relying on the honour system and self-disclosure in such cases.
The authors argue that even if such payments did not influence editorial decisions (a relation that was not investigated in the current study), the optics of this demonstrated lack of transparency are a problem in and of themselves. “Even the appearance of conflicts-of-interest can severely damage the fragile public trust in the medical research enterprise,” the authors write.