Payments to top journal editors may undermine public trust, study says

One in two editors of top U.S medical journals are taking payments from the pharmaceutical and medical devices industry, a new study has found.

The finding threatens to undermine public confidence in published research, according to the authors of the study published in The BMJ.

Under US laws, physicians must declare all industry-funded research and general payments they receive to cover meals, royalties, consulting fees and travel in an Open Payments database.

Using this database, the researchers discovered 51% of physician-editors received a general payment (average $28,000 USD) and one in five received a payment for research (average $38,000 USD) during 2014.

While the median general payment was $11 USD one editor raked in over $10 million USD.

The finding that in some specialties – notably gastroenterology, endocrinology and cardiology – physicians who edit journals received substantially more from industry than those who do not –  “should raise questions,” wrote Jessica Liu and her co-authors from the Department of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, University Health Network and Sinai Health System in Toronto, Canada.

The median general payment for endocrinology journal editors was $7207 USD, compared to $758 USD for all endocrinologists, and $2664 USD for cardiology journal editors compared to $582 USD for all cardiologists.

Journal editors play an important role in ensuring the integrity of medical research and “wield enormous power” bearing responsibility for decisions on article selection, content and editorials.

And it is well known that industry targets physician ‘thought leaders’ for lucrative consulting and advisory roles in a bid to boost sales, the authors wrote.

“Our finding suggests that, not surprisingly, editors at influential journals are attractive to industry.”

“At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that we do not know if editorial relations influence publication decisions. In the best case, the answer would be a categorical ‘no’.

“That said, even the appearance of conflicts of interest can severely damage the fragile public trust in the medical research enterprise.”

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