Lessons From Medical Journal's Mea Culpa

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It's probably the most easy-to-understand piece ever to grace the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine. There in Thursday's edition of the venerated periodical, alongside impenetrable articles on various scleroses and neuroses, was a full-page confession by the publication's editorial staff. The crime: The Journal violated its own conflict of interest rules by accepting drug studies by researchers whose employers received funding from some of the drug companies whose products were being evaluated. While this may not equate with traditional notions of payola — no member of the NEJ staff received any money from the drug companies, and the researchers themselves did not personally benefit — science journals are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard.

The mea culpa points to two trends. One is a lapse in judgment by some of the journal's editors; the other is medicine's increased reliance on drug-company funding for research. "The New England Journal of Medicine is still the gold standard in credibility," says TIME health writer Janice Horowitz. "However, medical studies in general are not what they used to be. You see more and more conflicts of interest. You often see drug companies financing studies."

The heat was first brought on the Journal last year, when the Los Angeles Times reported eight cases in which similar conflicts of interest occurred. The Journal then tracked every drug-related article written from 1997 through the present and fessed up to 19 infractions in that period. The editors maintain that none of the articles were tainted since the conflicts were disclosed to its editorial staff and the articles were subject to peer review.

"Regardless of how good the publication is," says TIME medical contributor Dr. Ian Smith, "there's so much pressure on doctors to taint their studies that any time a drug company has an interest at stake in an article it creates a public concern. You can never overemphasize the need for objective medical reporting, which has such a great impact on such a large population."