Misleading dissemination of trials/studies

There are a number of ways for individuals and groups to misleadingly disseminate randomised controlled trials and other studies. One way of doing this is to publish positive studies and not negative studies. Alternatively, researchers may omit discovered harms and overstate the benefits of a treatment, technology or way of delivering a service.

But ways of subverting the medical evidence base may be more subtle. Trials/studies may be misleadingly disseminated via guest authorship – when leading researchers are paid to be authors of an article that they didn’t write or for a study that they didn’t conduct. Instead, professional ghost writers briefed by the trial sponsor may write the article. Researchers may agree to this to enhance their reputation and increase their chances of getting future funding, which is often dependent on publications and past experience in scientific studies. For the trial sponsor, using acclaimed academics may lead to greater credibility and publicity for their published study.

Another issue comes in the role that journals have in disseminating research. Editors with links to manufacturers may suppress negative research findings and refuse to grant publication. Peer reviewers may misappropriate the contents of manuscripts or fail to disclose conflicts of interest that will have a bearing on the publication of research. All have an impact on the evidence on which medical treatments are based.

Finally, when research is published and covered by journalists with comments from experts, patient organisations and professional groups, there are further risks of conflicts of interest. For example, companies often pay journalists as expert media advisors on a particular treatment or service and ask them to sign confidentiality agreements. The journalist may then report on the ensuing publication without declaring any conflicts of interest.