Science's Dirty Secret

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
September 1996; Reviewed: February 2004

It was announced in September 1996 that the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) had published an editorial by two authors who had previously consulted for a pharmaceutical company whose drug had come under fire due to toxic side effects in rare conditions in a study, published in the same NEJM issue. The authors defended the drug's effectiveness and safety, arguing it ultimately would save more lives, all things considered. The NEJM was unaware of the authors' affiliation with the drug company and now state that they would have not published the glowing editorial had they known.

So what's going on here?

This is science's dirty little secret come out in the public. It rarely gets such a public outing, because the relationships in academia and in research labs throughout the world are usually very closed to public scrutiny. The secret is this, though... That no matter how objective scientists pretend to be, there are often ulterior motives working, consciously and unconsciously. Drug manufacturers pay researchers to confirm a drug's effectiveness. If the researcher fails to find the drug effective, that researcher is all but cut off from future funding opportunities and studies by that drug company. Worse yet, contrary to useful science, most data that isn't supportive of a drug's effectiveness isn't ever published. Anywhere. It's withheld by the pharmaceutical company and is never published. Pharmaceutical companies only fund studies that show their drugs to be at least as effective as what's already available; they bury the ones that show anything else. Science can be objective. But humans conduct science and humans are notoriously subjective. Humans also have to interpret the science and data, which can lead to further errors.

Only after a drug has been out on the market and approved by the FDA do truly independent researchers, who have no direct financial incentives to find a drug effective or ineffective, get a crack at the investigation. Sometimes such researchers find somewhat disturbing results, such as those reported in the NEJM issue.

And drug companies are not alone in this. Psychologists who spend their lives pursuing a particular theory or idea about how behavior works in people also have an incentive to find the results they are seeking. I'm not suggesting that anyone is sitting there "cooking" the data, so to speak (although there have been clear examples of this happening in the past). But isn't it fascinating that for a researcher who spends their entire life and career devoted to X theory, they keep publishing many studies that continually confirm X theory time and time again?

Part of this, of course, is also due to academia's antiquated "publish or perish" initiative. Journals only publish positive findings and 99% of the time turn down insignificant or negative findings (although, arguably, these are equally as important). Are everyone's theories so good that they can keep reconfirming them time and time again in the journals? Do researchers actually conduct 10 studies to get one good study out of it they can publish? None that I know of can do this.

Whether they are aware of it or not, whether they want to admit to it or not, scientists are humans just like everyone else. They are, therefore, influenced by the same subtlelties of life that affect us all. So we should always look as objectively as we can at the hard data produced and examine the methods and statistics used in each study to ensure that a professional's own personal biases are not entering too greatly into the study's results or conclusions.

In the meantime, journal editors need to become more aware of direct financial incentives, whether they are paid through grants, stipends, contracts, or what-have-you, involved in the articles and editorials they publish. An editorial like that which appeared in the NEJM should never have passed even the first round of review.

Grohol, J.M. (Sep 1996). Science's dirty secret. [Online].




Last updated: 29 Mar 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Mar 2015
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