PLOS: Medical Journals Extension Arms of Big Pharma
Medical Journals Are an Extension of the Marketing Arm of Pharmaceutical Companies
“Journals have devolved into information laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry”, wrote Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, in March 2004 . In the same year, Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, lambasted the industry for becoming “primarily a marketing machine” and co-opting “every institution that might stand in its way” . Medical journals were conspicuously absent from her list of co-opted institutions, but she and Horton are not the only editors who have become increasingly queasy about the power and influence of the industry. Jerry Kassirer, another former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, argues that the industry has deflected the moral compasses of many physicians , and the editors of PLoS Medicine have declared that they will not become “part of the cycle of dependency…between journals and the pharmaceutical industry” . Something is clearly up.
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"Journal editors are becoming increasingly aware of how they are being manipulated and are fighting back [17,18], but I must confess that it took me almost a quarter of a century editing for the BMJ to wake up to what was happening. Editors work by considering the studies submitted to them. They ask the authors to send them any related studies, but editors have no other mechanism to know what other unpublished studies exist. It's hard even to know about related studies that are published, and it may be impossible to tell that studies are describing results from some of the same patients. Editors may thus be peer reviewing one piece of a gigantic and clever marketing jigsaw—and the piece they have is likely to be of high technical quality. It will probably pass peer review, a process that research has anyway shown to be an ineffective lottery prone to bias and abuse .
Furthermore, the editors are likely to favour randomised trials. Many journals publish few such trials and would like to publish more: they are, as I've said, a superior form of evidence. The trials are also likely to be clinically interesting. Other reasons for publishing are less worthy. Publishers know that pharmaceutical companies will often purchase thousands of dollars' worth of reprints, and the profit margin on reprints is likely to be 70%. Editors, too, know that publishing such studies is highly profitable, and editors are increasingly responsible for the budgets of their journals and for producing a profit for the owners. Many owners—including academic societies—depend on profits from their journals. An editor may thus face a frighteningly stark conflict of interest: publish a trial that will bring US$100 000 of profit or meet the end-of-year budget by firing an editor."
Examples of Methods for Pharmaceutical Companies to Get the Results They Want from Clinical Trials
- Conduct a trial of your drug against a treatment known to be inferior.
- Trial your drugs against too low a dose of a competitor drug.
- Conduct a trial of your drug against too high a dose of a competitor drug (making your drug seem less toxic).
- Conduct trials that are too small to show differences from competitor drugs.
- Use multiple endpoints in the trial and select for publication those that give favourable results.
- Do multicentre trials and select for publication results from centres that are favourable.
- Conduct subgroup analyses and select for publication those that are favourable.
- Present results that are most likely to impress—for example, reduction in relative rather than absolute risk.