PureInsight | December 25, 2007
Previously I have highlighted the way that the pharmaceutical industry appears to use its financial muscle to ensure its products end up in a favorable market position.
Earlier this month, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published another study on this theme. The particular focus of this review was "meta-analysis" studies, which lump together a number of similar pieces of research in an effort to get an overall view of a treatment's effectiveness.
The researchers who undertook this review looked at a total of 124 meta-analyses concerning drug treatment for high blood pressure (hypertension). They then compared the results of those meta-analyses that had a financial link with one pharmaceutical company with those that did not have such a link (and were, presumably, independently funded).
They looked at the relationship between funding and the results of the meta-analyses.
They found that on the face of it at least, having a link with a drug company did not mean that a meta-analysis was more likely to report favorable results. That's nice to know, but the researchers went further by then assessing the relationship between funding and the conclusions (the spin put on the study) drawn by the authors of the meta-analysis.
This is where things got more interesting: The meta-analyses that had drug company funding were four to five times more likely to draw positive conclusions from the findings than those that had been independently funded (same results, remember).
What this demonstrates is just how subjective supposedly 'objective'? researchers can be and just how corruptible these opinions are when vested interest is at play.
Another issue highlighted by this review is the process of 'peer review'? by which academics vet studies for suitable methodology and appropriateness for publication.
Basically, one job of reviewers is to detect and screen out studies that show discordance between the results they show and the conclusions drawn by the authors of the study. However, it seems that some reviewers are failing with regard to this.
The authors of the BMJ review write: "Both editors and peer reviewers must have read manuscript versions of those meta-analyses containing discordant results and conclusions, yet they did not prevent publication of biased conclusions.
"Editors and peer reviewers, as well as policymakers, meta-analysts, and readers should closely scrutinize the conclusions of meta-analyses to ensure that they are supported by the data."
1. Yank V, et al. Financial ties and concordance between results and conclusions in meta-analyses: retrospective cohort study. British Medical Journal doi: 10.1136/bmj.39376.447211.BE (published November 16, 2007)