Indeed, medical journals have become an important but underrecognized obstacle to
scientific truth-telling. Journals have devolved into information-laundering operations
for the pharmaceutical industry. Here is how it works. A pharmaceutical company will
sponsor a scientific meeting. Speakers will be invited to talk about a product, and they
will be paid a hefty fee (several thousand dollars) for doing so. They are chosen for their
known views about a particular drug or because they have a reputation for being
adaptable in attitude toward the needs of the company paying their fee. The meeting
takes place and the speaker delivers a talk. A pharmaceutical communications company
will record this lecture and convert it into an article for publication, usually as part of a
collection of papers emanating from the symposium. This collection will be offered to a
medical publisher for an amount that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The publisher will then seek a reputable journal to publish the papers based on the
symposium, commonly as a supplement to the main journal. The peer-review process
will be minimal or nonexistent, and is sometimes not even the responsibility of the editor in-chief of the parent journal. Publication of the supplement appears to benefit all parties.
The sponsor obtains a publication whose content it has largely if not wholly influenced,
but which now appears under the imprint of a journal that confers on the work a valuable
credibility that the company has bought, not earned. The publisher receives a tidy high margin revenue from the deal.
Why is this practice wrong and dangerous? The scientific quality of research in the
thousands of industry-sponsored supplements published each year is notoriously inferior
to the research published in properly peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The process of publication has been reduced to marketing dressed up as legitimate science.
Pharmaceutical companies have found a way to circumvent the protective norms of peer
review. In all too many cases, they are able to seed the research literature with weak
science that they can then use to promote their products to physicians.