Look no further than the field of food science to see what a distorting force industry funding of scientific research can be. If it weren't for grape juice producers or nut growers eager to boost sales, for example, it's a pretty safe bet that studies claiming Concord grape juice can help improve brain function and walnuts can reduce the risk for diabetes would never see the light of day.
Nutrition isn't the only area of science with a problem. From medicines and medical devices to weight loss aids and sugary drinks, researchers have found that studies supported by industry are more likely to return results that are favorable to the funder. With all the discretionary decisions that go into designing, conducting, and interpreting research, this isn't entirely surprising.
Yet when you read one of these studies, information about funding sources or conflicts of interest are often buried deep at the end of the article just before the list of citations. On PubMed — which is essentially a taxpayer-funded Google for medical study abstracts that doctors, patients, and the media rely on — data about funding sources and conflicts is hard to find.
Now a group of 62 scientists and physicians from around the world (including the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest) are lobbying to change that. They want funding disclosures to be prominently displayed on PubMed, so that people who don't have access to a journal article can easily be made aware of any possible industry influence over studies.
These experts are asking the National Institutes of Health and its National Library of Medicine (NLM), the federal institutions behind the site, to begin listing researchers’ funding sources and potential conflicts of interests in PubMed abstracts:
We strongly urge the NLM to require all journals listed in PubMed to provide information about funding sources and other possible competing interests in all abstracts. To facilitate research, the "competing interest" section should be fully searchable. Thus, PubMed would advise users about the entity or entities that funded the study and whether (a) the authors reported no competing interests; (b) the authors reported the competing interests; (c) the article did not include a competing-interests disclosure statement; or (d) the journal did not provide disclosure of funding sources or the authors’ other competing interests.
Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition and one of the letter signatories, said featuring that information on PubMed shouldn't be too much of a stretch, since most journals already require researchers to disclose data about funding and conflicts. Still, she added, there might be pushback from researchers who would rather not shed light on this information, which could hamper the effort.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the NLM has said it will explore this request. Vox has also reached out to the NIH for comment.
Whatever happens, there may be workarounds for PubMed readers coming soon. Christopher Robertson, a health law professor at the University of Arizona, created a Chrome extension called Unearth that adds conflict-of-interest information to the abstract page of PubMed articles. The app is still in beta, but he's working to develop a final version to go live in the coming months.
Robertson doesn't think it'll fix the conflict-of-interest problem in research. But he views it as a step toward more transparency about industry funding.
"There's been a lot of concern about science distorted by the drug and device industries that fund the vast majority of research," he said. "There's a lot of remedies for this problem — disclosure is just one of them."