In response to the recent storm of publicity over the failure of many medical researchers to disclose the lucrative personal payments they get from the drug and medical device companies that also fund their research, many medical journals have developed written policies requiring disclosure of such conflicts of interest. That’s the good news. The bad news is that many of these new policies lack the kind of scope and specificity that would really make a difference.

That at least is the conclusion of a rigorous new study, published online in the journal Accountability in Research, which found that more than 75 percent of the 227 medical and toxicology journals studied had minimal levels of specificity in their written conflict of interest policies. For example, most journals do not specify what they mean by a conflict of interest, so it’s up to the researcher-author to decide if, say, the consulting gig they have with a drug company that is also funding their research, poses a conflict of interest or not.

“People have very different ideas about what constitutes a conflict of interest and what doesn’t, so that gives authors a lot of latitude not to disclose,” said Tufts University professor Sheldon Krimsky, who is the lead author of the new study.

Likewise, most of the journals did not specify what type of content researchers need to disclose conflicts of interest for. Whether, for example, they are required to disclose when they were submitting an original article, or a review or commentary article. And very few journals provided a monetary threshold for when disclosure is a must.

As a result of such lack of specificity, many researchers make their own decisions about when and what they should disclose. Such findings may explain why previous studies have found big gaps and inconsistencies in who discloses what to medical journals.

“This explains why many researchers disregard the requirement and simply don’t report conflicts of interest,” Krimsky said.

As a typical example, Krimsky cites the written COI policy of the International Journal of Cancer Research, which merely states: “Authors must include financial support received for research. Acknowledgements for financial support must be stated.” The policy says nothing about consulting or speaking gigs. Nor does it specify what kind of financial support it’s referring to or for what type of submissions the authors should disclose this support.

The solution? Journals have got to got more specific in what they mean by conflicts of interest and when authors should disclose these conflicts. As Krimsky notes, “Journals have to take responsibility for what is not being reported and should be reported.”

The American public (who funds much of this research) deserves no less.

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