A common route to transparency

The relentless process of making the financial associations of medical researchers more transparent has taken another important step forward.

The 12 journals that belong to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) have agreed a common format for disclosing authors’ financial interests. They include the world’s best known medical publications such as The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and BMJ.

The new disclosure form is introduced in a common editorial to be published in forthcoming issues of all ICMJE journals.

The three-page form, which will have to be submitted online by everyone whose name appears on an article, looks quite formidable. But the journals say the common format will actually make life easier for authors by eliminating the need to draw up separate forms for competing journals; they will be able to store it on their computers in partially completed form and just add information specific to the manuscript.

There are four sections. First, authors must state their assocations with any company or organisation that supported in any way the study or paper submitted for publication. Second – and this is the longest and most detailed section – they must specify any financial association with any entity that could be viewed as having an interest in the general area of the submitted manuscript (at any point during the three years before submission).

Thirdly, authors are asked about similar associations involving their spouse or children. And lastly they must disclose relevant non-financial associations.

To guide authors, ICMJE provides an illustrative form completed by Kermit The Frog, co-author of a paper entitled “The effects of Sunstop on the function of sunlight on frog skin slime”. For example, in section 4, Kermit declares: “Tadpole Inc. puts $10,000 per year in the college fund of each of my children and pays for a car that my wife drives on a daily basis.”

Though some authors may regard the exercise as excessively intrusive, it is unfortunately necessary if the scientific integrity of medical research is to be restored after recent scandals, such as the drafting by company-funded ghostwriters of articles that are passed off as the work of independent academics.

The journals will use the form for a six-month trial, before their editors meet in April to modify it if necessary in the light of experience.

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.