Funding sources disclosure and scientific conclusion biases

Most journals ask authors of articles to disclose their funding sources, for reviews or articles. This may look as a mere administrative constraint, without any relationship with the scientific content of the article. However, several studies in the field of health sciences have pointed out a correlation between the type of funding and the scientific conclusions of articles, showing that industrial support may bias scientific conclusions (Lesser, 2007Levine, 2003) . For instance, Lesser et al found that for interventional studies on soft drinks, juice and milk published between 1999 and 2003, 37% of non-industry funded studies reached unfavorable conclusions, vs 0% for industry-funded studies. Such observations therefore call for transparency in funding sources disclosure.

However, funding mechanisms can be complex, and this can affect the transparency of disclosure of funding sources and conflict of interests. This issue was addressed in an editorial of the New England Journal of Medicine, in 2008 (Schwartz et al, 2008). The authors of this editorial mention the case of nonprofit foundations housed at academic institutions, funded by industry support. In particular, they address the case of an article they published, that conclude that “the majority of stage I lung cancers treated after their detection by Computed Tomography screening had a favorable prognosis” (Henschke, 2006). The authors of this article reported that the work was partly funded by the Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention and Treatment. However, after publication of the article, the editors learned that the main contributor of this foundation was the Vector Group, the parent company of Liggett, a major tobacco company. The editors subsequently asked the authors to publish a clarification on this point (Henschke, 2008).
The editors therefore insist on the importance of making the ultimate source of funding clear to the readers. In addition, they ask “whether a study on clinical outcomes in lung cancer should be directly underwritten in part by the tobacco industry”.

References

  • Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS (2007) Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles. PLoS Med 4(1): e5.
  • Levine J, Gussow JD, Hastings D, Eccher A. (2003) Authors’ financial relationships with the food and beverage industry and their published positions on the fat substitute olestra. Am J Public Health.93(4):664-9.
  • Schwartz RS, Curfman GD, Morrissey S, Drazen JM. (2008) Full disclosure and the funding of biomedical research. N Engl J Med. 358(17):1850-1.
  • Henschke C. et al (2006). Survival of patients with stage I lung cancer detected on CT screening. N Engl J Med;355:1763-1771.
  • Henschke C. (2008) Clarification of funding of early lung cancer study. N Engl J Med. 358(17):1862.

(july 2011)

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