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J R Soc Med. 2007 August; 100(8): 355.
PMCID: PMC1939945

A call for publishers to declare their conflicts of interest

We welcome the recent attention to the issue of the ethics and transparency of publishers in your journal (JRSM 2007;100:113 and 114-115).1-3 While recent attention in this regard has appropriately focused on the prominent case of Reed Elsevier's involvement in the global arms trade, there are many wider issues involved. Other examples of questionable publishing ethics which have been identified include the unhealthy involvement of some publishers with the pharmaceutical industry,4 and the documented protobacco bias of articles published by the journal Indoor and Built Environment. In this case, the journal's parent association, the International Society of the Built Environment, had been assisted by the tobacco industry.5

In addition, as your editorial suggests,1 impact factors—at worst an unscientific and non-transparent method to capture markets and advertisers—may also fall in this category. We welcome additions from readers to this dataset. There are many candidates. For example, do any multinational food companies sponsor and subtly influence nutrition journals? Might any military agent covertly sponsor a peace journal?

These examples, real and hypothetical, support the case that publishers should periodically declare their own conflicts of interest. Your editorial goes very close to declaring (like the BMJ: http://resources.bmj.com/bmj/about-bmj/declaration-of-competing-interests) that your journal has no such conflicts of interest to hide. As with the JRSM (‘flourishing by entirely reputable means’), journals with nothing to hide need not fear making such a declaration. Perhaps an indicator of publisher transparency could even be woven into journal impact factors!

A way to think of these problems is in terms of public and private goods. The failure of socialist economies to achieve a semblance of utopia lies, in part, on an insufficient appreciation of private goods and the human need for rewards in exchange for risk, inventiveness and hard work. But globally, the pendulum to private goods has swung too far. Public goods are vital for well-being and for sustainability, and it is folly to think that they can be largely or even fully replaced by private goods, even if supplied in copious quantities. Indeed, many public goods, such as freedom of speech, clean air and an absence of nuclear weapons, have no plausible private substitute at all.

We recognise that private goods, such as advertising and fees for journal offprints, are a legitimate mechanism to offset the many costs of publishing. Equally clearly, the public good of the scientific discourse, unencumbered as far as possible by unseen influence, is essential if our civilization is to flourish. Long ago, gentlemen observed codes of conduct which were as much unspoken as stated. Professionalism once meant that certain norms would (almost) unquestionably be observed. The erosion of these standards, combined with a supposedly greater sophistication of the audience, has in recent times forced authors and reviewers to declare real and perceived conflicts of interest. We welcome this. But publishers are clearly also contaminated by these same powerful global forces. It is time for all publishers to declare their own conflicts of interest, both real and reasonably perceived as such.

Notes

Competing interests None declared.

References

1. Abbasi K. Why journals can live without impact factor and cluster bombs. J R Soc Med 2007;100: 113. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Young C, Godlee F. Reed Elsevier's arms trade. BMJ 2007;334: 547. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
3. Smith R. Reed-Elsevier's hypocrisy in selling arms and health. J R Soc Med 2007;100: 114-5 [PMC free article] [PubMed]
4. Smith R. Medical journals are an extension of the marketing arm of pharmaceutical companies. PLoS Med 2005;2: e138. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
5. Garne D, Watson M, Chapman S, Byrne F. Environmental tobacco smoke research published in the journal Indoor and Built Environment and associations with the tobacco industry. Lancet 2005;365: 804-9 [PubMed]

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press