Why the BMJ Should Not Follow NEJM Author Ban Policy

Fiona Godlee has written a very interesting Editorial in the BMJ and this tweet of hers made me think on this issue:

I oppose the blanket ban mainly on principle. I know that it sounds weird, but in my opinion, putting a ban on editorials and reviews by academics with ties with any related industries is indicative of mistrust on behalf of the BMJ. While I agree scientists have a way of misusing the trust placed on them (Andrew Wakefield, anyone?) still, that forms only a minor part of the spectrum. Most scientists and academics are true to their calling. Imposing a blanket ban would just mean that there is a breach of the assumed scientific integrity that comes with being a prominent academic.

My question is: where does it end?

First it is banning the ones with industrial ties. Next there are more regulations on research. More safeguards being put in place by an overly incredulous society, until, finally, in all the heap of meretricious paper work to ensure proper scientific demeanor, the actual practice of science is lost! So, I see the banning of academics with industry ties as just the first step along a slippery slope.

Thanks to innumerable regulatory inhibitions and legal bindings (libel laws in UK, for example), scientific inquiry is already  running at a snail’s pace. I am not saying that it is a bad thing to place these check points – it purportedly stops the occasional mad scientist from running amok – although it is at a cost to the multitudes of other trudging on in good conscience. The FDA was planning to loosen the laws on involving experts with industry ties mainly because of this reason only: to expedite the functioning of approval of newer drugs!

Unfortunately, scientists are not helping their cause either. In the last few years, retractions due to data fraud or malicious manipulation of data has gone up in leaps and bounds. This does not reflect too well on the scientific community. The immense pressure to publish or perish, to obtain grants in an impecunious fiscal climate, the rat race to reach the top of the food chain has been only the stimulus needed to awaken the abeyant delinquency in the morally bankrupt segment of scientists.

But to put this blanket ban would mean equating the whole scientific community with the few aberrant delinquents. And that does not seem fair to me. Scientific publication works on an assumed moral and ethical integrity on behalf of the scientists. And I think this assumed trust plays a large role in endearing science as a vocation. If we lose this sheen of glamour and start to get treated with guarded suspicion, I am afraid a lot of people, mostly hopeless science romantics like me, shall not take it too well. The ICMJE has framed a pretty detailed system where publishing scientists get to declare their conflicts of interest. A lot of information is filled out in those forms. This should allow editors the ability to screen the issues based on individual cases. Which is what is being done now…

And finally, an openly trusting system will bring out more industrial ties on behalf of the academics. If the system becomes distrustful of the scientists, I am sure big pharma and its cousins will find a way to worm surreptitiously in. Which is worse: a system that encourages under-the-carpet deals between academics and industries because of an over vigilant scientific community or a system where all such associations and conflicts of interest are viewed openly?

In conclusion, I realize that this rant is not evidence based, it is not insured with the gold standard of data and information, but it stems from a much more primitive part of our system: emotions, pride, honor. It would be a bad day for the greater scientific community if the BMJ went the way of the now-scrapped NEJM policy and decided to place a blanket ban on all publication overtures by academics with industrial ties.

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2 thoughts on “Why the BMJ Should Not Follow NEJM Author Ban Policy

  1. I think you are right on with most of your comments. I question whether “In the last few years, retractions due to data fraud or malicious manipulation of data has gone up in leaps and bounds.” Certainly there have been some high profile cases recently, but I think there have always been cases of this. It will be interesting to see if Grand Rounds this week brings more comments.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree that statement was a little speculative, and I should have written something about it being more apparent now (either because of better checks in place or because of more high profile cases of late). In any case, I am glad that you agree with the points I make, because most of my mentors do not seem to agree with me! :)

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