Neil McKeganey, Christopher Russell | 27 February 2016
In a commentary piece published in the journal Addiction, Professor Jim McCambridge from the University of York sets out why, in his view, academic journals should not publish any e-cigarette research funded by the tobacco industry. The basis for McCambridge’s view is, not as it turns out, evidence of current misconduct on the part of the tobacco industry with regard to the research which it funds on e-cigarette, but evidence of decades old misconduct revealed in analysis of internal tobacco industry documents analysed as part of the Legacy Foundation (now Truth Initiative).
McCambridge concedes that evidence of any current scientific misconduct on the part of the tobacco industry is “less strong”. However, in a world where allegation has supplanted evidence it is regrettably enough for McCambridge to call for such a ban on the basis that he, and others, believe that such misconduct continues to occur. When it comes to assessing the health harm and public health benefits of e-cigarettes McCambridge must feel we are in a world of excess knowledge that he should so comprehensively discard research solely on the basis of the funding received.
McCambridge goes much further than advocating for the extension of a ban on industry funded e-cigarette research. Arguing that self-disclosure of conflicts of interest is no longer enough to ensure the transparency of the research process, McCambridge advocates the creation of a register of financial and other disclosures that “does not rely exclusively upon self-disclosure”. Whilst not specifying exactly what such a register could possibly be based upon McCambridge is in effect advocating the creation of a list based on suspicion, innuendo, some level of detective work, and unsubstantiated allegation.
The researchers he wants on that list are not only those who have received industry funding in the recent past but those who have received industry funding anytime in the past. McCambridge instances one researcher, whose organisation received tobacco industry funding more than twelve years ago. For McCambridge there is no statute of limitations when it comes to industry funding nor in his view is there a statute of limitations on the activities of the tobacco industry even despite the fact that there has been a generational shift in staff working within that industry from the period of proven past misconduct. This is the new McCarthyism in which allegation stands in place of evidence and where the appearance upon such a blacklist could destroy a researcher’s career.
The conflict of interest statement that journals require from authors was never intended to be the basis for rejecting manuscripts. Knowing who, or which organisations, funded research is an important part of the process through which readers of scientific papers can assess the arguments those papers contain. If we allow conflicts of interest statements to be used as the basis upon which research is rejected, and if we allow the creation of a blacklist of industry supported researchers, we run the risk of inviting the very concealment which the conflict of interest statements were designed to resolve.
There is a real danger here of creating an academic environment in which allegation or suspicion has supplanted proof when it comes to scientific misconduct. The clearest example of this is contained within McCambridge’s own published commentary in which he acknowledges that he is not aware of evidence that the pharmaceutical industry has engaged in the same past misconduct as the tobacco industry. Yet, he says, he would not be surprised if this were the case, and he then goes on to offer a range of possible mechanisms though which the very thing he has acknowledged he has no proof is occurring may be taking place. Suspicion has assumed primacy over evidence.
These are dangerous waters in which there is a zeal amongst some commentators to disparage the integrity of colleagues in a belief that they are serving a higher goal. However, in the reactionary rejection of colleagues work their efforts may undermine the openness, and the free exchange of knowledge and understanding, that is at the very heart of the scientific enterprise. Neither public health, nor science, will be enhanced if those inclinations are continued. The hugely respected Addiction journal should not have allowed itself to be the vehicle through which this climate of suspicion is being advanced.
Neil McKeganey Ph.D Christopher Russell Ph.D
Centre for Substance Use Research
McCambridge, J. (2016) Ethical Issues Raised by Tobacco Industry Linked Research in the Era of E-Cigarettes. Addiction (early view).
Conflict of Interest
The Centre for Substance Use Research (formerly the Centre for Drug Misuse Research) has received funding from a wide range of bodies including the UN, UK Dept of Health, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, British American Tobacco, Nicoventures, Philip Morris, Fontem Ventures. Neil McKeganey contributed evidence that was included within the BAT submission to the UK government consultation on plain packaging of tobacco products.