Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Public Library of Scientific Shame
Last week the journal PLoS Medicine announced that it will not accept for review any research studies funded in whole or part by the tobacco industry. PLoS stands for Public Library of Science, “a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource.” But PLoS Medicine’s action restricts the availability of scientific and medical research.
PLoS Medicine joins only the journals of the American Thoracic Society in banning tobacco industry-sponsored research. Still, this is an ominous development that potentially affects scientific research at universities throughout the U.S.
PLoS Medicine used standard rhetoric in defending its ban. “First, tobacco is indisputably bad for health.” This is an incredible admission that the journal editors don’t understand anything about smokeless tobacco and health risk. Further, as noted by Jeff Stier of the American Council on Science and Health, “By deciding to no longer allow for research funded in any part by the tobacco industry, [journal editors are] acknowledging that they're no longer able to evaluate science.”
PLoS Medicine editors know that virtually all university research projects are funded by sponsors with vested interests. This includes pharmaceutical manufacturers, the National Institutes of Health and non-profit organizations like the American Cancer Society. It is the responsibility of the university to ensure both the quality of the research and the integrity and reputation of faculty investigators. While some controversial funding sources might warrant special scrutiny, the solution isn't prohibition. In fact, banning tobacco industry funded research and its publication is a pernicious development. Right now it's Big Tobacco. But what about activists who believe that the devil's work is carried out by Big Oil, Big Alcohol, Big Pharma, Big Defense, Big Auto and Big Food? All of these are controversial industries and sources of research funding. Universities are already threatened by declining state and federal support. If PLoS Medicine’s ban is followed by other journals, university faculty and their research programs will become the pawns of social activists of all stripes.
Is PLoS Medicine’s ban of industry-funded research also applicable to the American Legacy Foundation? Legacy was created and funded by a multi-billion dollar voluntary settlement between tobacco manufacturers and states’ attorneys general in 1998. Legacy is worth over a billion dollars; it has given out over $150 million in grants, and it funds the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies . There is no doubt that Legacy is funded by the tobacco industry; will Legacy-supported research studies be banned from PLoS Medicine?
A university’s faculty must be free to pursue research regarding all legitimate subjects, pursue research funding from all legitimate sources, and publish findings in all legitimate scientific and medical journals. By bending to the whims of social and political activists, editors at PLoS Medicine have discredited their journal.