An article co-published in December by The New York Times and ProPublica raised concerns over potential concealment of financial relationships between healthcare companies and clinical researchers through inadequate disclosure reporting in research publications. The report points to concerns surrounding the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on medical research and highlights a lack of progress towards increased transparency. Although, efforts to improve reporting, such as the publication of standardised disclosure forms and the creation of centralised repositories for disclosures, have been made. While the authors acknowledge that failing to report a financial relationship may be unintentional, and is not in itself an indication of bias, they emphasise that an undisclosed conflict of interest could be perceived as hidden partiality towards a particular drug or manufacturer motivated by financial gain rather than scientific merit.
When the article examined individual cases, ambiguity over what constitutes a financial relationship (for example, should payments to a clinician’s research institution be included), as well as a lack of homogeneity in requirements between journals, were highlighted as reasons for incomplete disclosures. The article also implicated journals as partly responsible for missing disclosures by failing to verify the financial relationships of individual researchers. One journal editor interviewed for the article questioned the feasibility of this approach. However, the authors argue that checks could be facilitated through publicly available records of payments between manufacturers and healthcare professionals, such as the US Open Payments database (more commonly known as the Sunshine Act).
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) state in their latest guidance that purposeful failure to disclose conflicts of interest is a form of scientific misconduct. This may satisfy the article authors’ criticism that there are few repercussions for inadequate disclosure reporting. However, journals may also need to play a stronger role in guiding authors to provide their disclosures, giving clear advice on what relationships should be stated for full transparency.