Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PLoS Journals Open to Everyone - Except Tobacco Researchers

"At PLoS, we believe that articles in all journals should be assessed on their own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which they were published."
Assessed on their own merits, that is, unless they were funded by in whole or in part by a tobacco company. A few months ago, PLoS Medicine followed PLoS Biology and PLoS ONE in changing its editorial policy to one of no longer considering research where support comes from a tobacco company.

This change comes mainly on the grounds that tobacco is indisputably bad for health and see tobacco-sponsored research articles as advertising, and they refuse to help enhance the image of the industry. They also have concerns about industry ethics.
we remain concerned about the industry's long-standing attempts to distort the science of and deflect attention away from the harmful effects of smoking. That the tobacco industry has behaved disreputably—denying the harms of its products, campaigning against smoking bans, marketing to young people, and hiring public relations firms, consultants, and front groups to enhance the public credibility of their work—is well documented. There is no reason to believe that these direct assaults on human health will not continue, and we do not wish to provide a forum for companies' attempts to manipulate the science on tobacco's harms.
There is no doubt that smoking is unhealthy and that tobacco companies have acted in dubious ways to support their business interests. Sadly, that's not uncommon in big business - whether it's tobacco, oil, pharmaceutical or junk food. Will PLoS journals be rejecting all papers coming from Merck?

The issue here is that it runs counter to openness and the idea that research should be judged on its merits. Maybe I'm naive in thinking that "Smoking is Cool!", study funded by Philip Morris, will raise red flags for everybody. Isn't that why authors declare competing interests?

Strangely, PLoS justifies the decision arguing that it doesn't happen much anyway.
It is the case that we do not receive many tobacco industry sponsored papers—PLoS Medicine has published none since our inception in 2004 and PLoS ONE only two—and we have made previous editorial judgments on papers that might be favorable to the tobacco industry agenda on a case-by-case basis.
This seems to undercut the argument that Big Tobacco is persistently trying to manipulate science, and by refusing to review the few that are submitted, doesn't that just push them to venues where they might receive a less critical eye?

Worse, this policy could have an effect on tobacco's legitimate contributions to science. How might a ban on tobacco-funded research affect studies exploring plant-based vaccines, agricultural research or even virology (eg. tobacco mosaic virus research or interferon production)?

I love the free and open nature of the PLoS journals and have no love for Big Tobacco, but I'm not a huge fan of this editorial decision.


rob said...

Agreed entirely. This decision would have made sense many years ago. The fact that smoking is bad for you is not just common knowledge but is a truth that is impossible to be we unaware of. I would also echo your sentiment that there is lots of research funded with competing interests and why should the tobacco industry be singled out.

Anonymous Coward said...

That's hilarious, I had just noticed that disclaimer because I'm submitting to PLOS one, felt pretty random to single out one industry when there are so many culprits...