JAMA LAYS AN EGG
Three months ago I took JAMA to task over a Viewpoint opinion piece about conflict of interest. The authors proposed dancing around the reality of financial conflict of interest in medicine by talking instead about confluence of interest. I countered with a proposal for the term competing interests, which would not paper over the problem. In that post I also included a letter I had sent to JAMA in response to the opinion piece, but which JAMA had declined to publish. I questioned whether JAMA had deep sixed all the critical replies it received.
Now I can report that, in the April 26, 2016 print edition, JAMA has finally published one critical letter and a reply from the original authors. So JAMA didn’t deep six everything. This new correspondence appears 174 days after print publication and 214 days after on-line publication of the original Viewpoint article. That glacial delay is problematic – it disables meaningful dialogue.
The new critical letter is from a group in Europe, and it thoughtfully discusses weaknesses in the Viewpoint authored by Cappola and FitzGerald. These Viewpoint authors did not do justice to the critical letter in their reply. Moreover, they disclosed multiple potential competing interests, but they did not follow their own advice by clarifying why we should disregard those obvious competing interests. As we all know, the mere disclosure of competing interests does not by itself remove the problem. It can be a device for hiding in plain sight. Substantively, the reply from Cappola and FitzGerald is mostly hand waving and restatement of biased opinion, without real analysis or incisive thought.
The closing sentences of their reply letter illustrate these issues: “Everyone has biases. Rather than present these pejoratively, as a clash of values that undermines validity, it seems more constructive to mine the complexity of these biases, present them in an accessible fashion, and seek to determine whether they are confluent with the interests of patients, scientists, and regulators who might base their decisions on the results of a given piece of work.” The reference to complexity of biases concerns the matter of nonfinancial bias like fame and careerism in science. The reference to presenting biases in an accessible fashion concerns the ill-considered proposal to include a bias heat map on patients’ consent forms. This idea rightly was panned by the European critics. Meanwhile, where did the compromised and disgraced key opinion leaders disappear to in all this wishful thinking? Where did the corrupt corporations disappear to? They paid billions of dollars in penalties for felony crimes and plea-bargained settlements. They have been airbrushed out of the Cappola-FitzGerald narrative. These authors come across like Bambi confronting Godzilla.
If this is the best that an associate editor of JAMA and a fellow of the Royal Society can do then JAMA needs a fix. This effort is too little and much too late.