JAMA Demands Silence From Those Who Find Conflicts Among Its Authors

Last Updated Mar 23, 2009 12:07 PM EDT

The Journal of the American Medical Association has instituted a bizarre new policy requiring silence from anyone who notices a conflict of interest among its authors. JAMA will require silence about such conflicts until it has "investigated" them, according to the WSJ.

The policy is, of course, bound to fail. It arises after JAMA thoroughly embrassed itself by insulting a professor who pointed out -- correctly -- that a JAMA study of Forest Labs' Lexapro had been written by a researcher who had received money from Forest Labs -- a clear conflict of interest that was undisclosed when JAMA published the piece.

JAMA told the WSJ that associate Prof. Jonathan Leo of Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tenn., was "a nothing and a nobody" for identifying the conflict. (Leo and his colleague Jeffrey Lacasse, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, noted the conflict here).

In an attempt to prevent academics from pointing out each other's conflicts in public, JAMA has this new policy according to the WSJ:

It will instruct anyone filing a complaint to remain silent about the allegation until the journal investigates the charge.

... The JAMA editors said Dr. Leo was guilty of a "serious breach of confidentiality" by writing about the problems with the JAMA study while the medical journal was still investigating the matter. JAMA said that from now on, anyone complaining of an author failing to report a conflict of interest will "be specifically informed that he/she should not reveal this information to third parties or the media while an investigation is under way."

It's difficult to know where to start with this wrong-headed, intellectually unhealthy nonsense. But here goes:

First, having researchers point out flaws in each other's work quickly and early is good for research, not bad. Even if allegations turn out to be wrong, the exposure of why those allegations are wrong will prevent future researchers from grabbing the wrong end of a similar stick.

Second, academics are not "bound" by JAMA's rules. This is a free country, not a dicatorship in which JAMA editor-in-chief Catherine DeAngelis and Phil Fontanarosa, JAMA's executive deputy editor, get to decide who says what and when.

Third, in the age of the internet everything is becoming more transparent, not less so. As Leo himself points out, he discovered the JAMA conflict via a Google search, not by breaking some kind of "confidentiality."

And fourth, it is well-known that powerful institutions move a lot faster when the public spotlight is on them than when they're working under cover of darkness.

JAMA continues to deny that it insulted Leo on the phone with WSJ, a position that asks readers to believe that the WSJ is just making stuff up. Not credible.

JAMA has run a corrective letter on its conflicted Lexapro paper, but has yet to apologize to Leo or Lacasse for its rudeness, or to its readers for running conflicted information.