Those who engage in research pertinent to their expertise understand, or at least should understand, the importance of conducting that work in an intellectually honest manner. And in no other fields are the stakes in research more significant than medicine.
That’s why it’s worth taking a long look at medical writer Harriet Washington’s piece for The American Scholar (link here), exploring how “the $310 billion pharmaceutical industry quietly buys… the contents of medical journals and, all too often, the trajectory of medical research itself.”
For those who have been following the marketing and public relations practices of Big Pharma, much of this comes as no surprise. Nevertheless, Washington’s success is in pulling together a lot of details in one concise yet informative piece. A few teasers:
Medical journals are utterly dependent upon pharmaceutical advertising, which can provide between 97 and 99 percent of their advertising revenue.
Moreover, drugmakers sometimes agree to buy journal advertising only if it is accompanied by favorable editorial mentions of their products. …“Pharmaceutical firms also inform journals,” [former medical journal editor Richard] Smith observes, “that they are receptive to buying huge volumes of reprints that favor their wares: The profits for the journal can easily reach $100,000.”
Drugmakers have enticed or ensnared the very font of evidence-based medical knowledge—the peer-reviewed medical journal. Not content to turn these journals out to ply the streets for cash, the industry finds many ways to pervert the editorial content itself.
This perversion is such an open secret that in 2003 the British Medical Journal published a tongue-in-cheek essay instructing researchers in the fine art of “HARLOT—How to Achieve positive Results without actually Lying to Overcome the Truth.”
One does not have to be a complete antagonist toward traditional medicine to be alarmed at the implications. Personally, I believe that the best health care options during the coming decades will come from combinations of, and choices among, traditional and alternative approaches. These options include products made by pharmaceutical companies.
Thus, I’m not looking for us to put the pharmaceutical companies out of business. They produce drugs that can save lives.
But we should be alarmed at how these companies shape the very research that influences the profitability of their products. And we should be deeply concerned about the ethics of researchers who allow themselves to be co-opted in such a fashion.