Hwang Woo Suk: all eyes on journals’ conflict of interest policy

Published in The Hindu on January 26, 2006

Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University, one of the biggest science fraudsters of the 21st Century, has now successfully turned the spotlight on the inadequacies of Science and Nature journals. Authors are required to declare their conflict of interest while submitting papers for publication. According to Nature.com, the online site of the journal Nature, it now appears that Prof. Hwang and co-author Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, had applied for a patent based on their cloning and stem cell technologies before the papers were published.

Basis for bias

Conflict of interest can lead to bias in the way research is being conducted. It has been well documented that studies funded by pharmaceutical companies tend to have results that are favourable to the companies’ interests.In this case, though, the conflict of interest did not involve the funding agency. “Should the patents be granted, the scientists could make a fortune from the techniques,” noted Nature.com. Three papers were published by Prof. Hwang – two in Science and one in Nature – based on human embryonic stem cell research and the cloning of an Afghan hound respectively. The March 2004 paper published in Science did not have the box checked for conflict of interest. The June 2005 paper, again published in Science, had this box checked but no details were provided. Donald Kennedy, the Editor of Science was quoted as saying in Nature.com, “Normally we check the relationship between the topic of the patent and the substance of the paper. In this case the box was checked, but no description was given.”

Costly silence

The online news also added, “The journal [Science] would not clarify whether it pressed the authors for details or not.”Prof. Hwang had apparently ticked the box for ‘no competing interests’ on behalf of all authors for the paper published in Nature in 2005 on the cloning of the Afghan hound. The Washington DC based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has called on both the journals to strengthen their conflict-of-interest policies. “In a world where financial incentives can warp the scientific enterprise… it is incumbent that journal editors have strict conflict-of-interest policies,” Merrill Goozner, Director of CSPI said.

Providing teeth

Having strict policies in place alone may not be sufficient. As declaring conflict of interest is voluntary by the authors, punishing authors for not declaring it may provide the much-needed teeth for journals.In a report published by CSPI in 2004, it (CSPI) brought to light the conflict of interest that was prevalent but not declared in all the four journals that were taken up for scrutiny. Thomas J. Goehl, Editor-in-Chief of the Environmental Health Perspectives journal in an editorial published in October 2004 following the CSPI disclosure, noted, “Because we feel that full disclosure is an absolute requirement, we are now adding clear consequences for any ethical violation.”

Three-year ban

Goehl went on to add that the journal had imposed a three-year ban on authors who fail to disclose any conflict of interest. Similarly, Lancet does not allow conflicted authors to write editorials or reviews. The British Medical Journal, like the Lancet, has similar policies in place. Science and Nature can take a leaf out of the EHP journal’s policy. Only such strict measures can prove to be a deterrent for authors from violation. “We are certainly looking at the problem, with an exception that we can institute some changes,” Kennedy was quoted as saying in Nature.com.

Publishing a correction

Philip Campbell, the Editor-in-Chief of Nature has, however, indicated that if breach of the journal’s policy were to be confirmed, the journal would publish a correction.Correction? But can a mere publication of correction suffice to compel authors to come out openly? In 2002 the Editor, Richard Smith of the British Medical Journal wrote in an editorial “… Several studies have shown that such conflicts are rarely declared in most journals – despite good evidence that most authors have them.”

Readers’ perception

Smith pointed out, “The problem with conflicts of interest is not declaring them.” But when authors do declare them it does no good either as revealed by a survey that BMJ undertook with its readers. It found that readers discounted heavily those studies that had conflict of interest. So what should authors like Hwang do? “… Integrity of a journal rests jointly on the ethical behaviour of authors and editors. … “How an editor is perceived to handle this responsibility has far-reaching effects on the trust of readers in a journal,” noted Editor Martin J. Tobin in 2004 in an editorial in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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