Revere already flagged this story, but I’m going to try to move beyond the forehead slapping to some analysis of why a journal’s confidentiality rules might matter. (I’ll leave it to Bill, Bora, Jean-Claude, and their posse to explain how a thoroughgoing shift to “open science” might make such situations go away.)
The story, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is that a peer reviewer for the New England Journal of Medicine, reviewing a manuscript that reported negative findings about the safety of a diabetes drug, broke confidentiality rules and sent a copy of that soon-to-be-published manuscript to the drug’s manufacturer:
The reviewer, Steven M. Haffner, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, broke the journal’s confidentiality rules by faxing a copy of a review of studies on the diabetes drug Avandia to a colleague at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company. Dr. Haffner has received consulting fees and speaker’s honoraria from the company…
Dr. Haffner told Nature, “Why I sent it is a mystery. I don’t really understand it. I wasn’t feeling well. It was bad judgment.”
A spokeswoman for Glaxo said that the company had already planned to publish interim results of another study of the drug that it had sponsored, but that knowledge that the review would be appearing soon “added an additional sense of urgency.” Glaxo’s study appeared online in the same journal just two weeks after the review paper did.
“It was bad judgment” seems like an understatement. And I’m not terribly moved by the “wasn’t feeling well” excuse. If I were a meaner person than I try to be, I might compare that excuse to the classic “Gosh, after a few pitchers of beer in the airport bar, I think I maybe hit my head on the barstool and the next thing I remember I’m in the cockpit piloting the plane.”
Some free advice: on days when you’re not feeling well enough to make good judgments, set your work aside and take some time to recover.
You will notice that professor Haffner was not just a reviewer for the New England Journal of Medicine, but also a paid consultant for Glaxo. I wonder whether that wouldn’t already create a conflict of interest (or, at the very least, the appearance of one) for Haffner in evaluating a manuscript reviewing the safety and efficacy of a Glaxo product.
But let’s assume Haffner somehow has the ability to make objective reviews of manuscripts concerning the products of a pharmaceutical company for which he’s a paid consultant. Let’s assume that he didn’t tell the NEJM editors that they ought to get another reviewer for this manuscript because he was confident that he could set aside his financial interests while reviewing the goodness of the science.
Why, then, fax the manuscript to Glaxo before it was published rather than, say, emailing them a link to the article once it was published online?
Surely not so Glaxo executives could sell off their stock before the article was published. I’m pretty sure that’s insider information of the sort the Securities and Exchange Commission takes a dim view.
Was it to give Glaxo “an additional sense of urgency” in rushing their new studies to publication? Is this the kind of thing that can be expected to result in better results from a scientific point of view — results that are derived from enough data, thoroughly analyzed, checked for error? Or would these hurried results mostly be “better” from the point of view of Glaxo’s bottom-line?
Why not leak the manuscript to all the researchers studying the drug in question? The selective sharing of the pre-publication manuscript seems to reflect a bias toward Glaxo. In turn, this suggests that Haffner wasn’t entirely unbiased.
Indeed, maybe one reason for the confidentiality rule is to prevent peer reviewers from making judgments on the basis of their biases, whether those biases come from financial relationships or professional loyalties or rivalries. The rule against sharing the manuscript you’re reviewing with others is supposed to remind you that, in your capacity as a peer reviewer dealing with a manuscript, you are supposed to set those other interests aside. Feeling like you want to share the information with someone else and then remembering that the rules prevent you from doing so might also help you notice some of the biases you bring to the table, and to work extra hard to pull against them in evaluating the science. Or, it might make you recognize that, in particular instances, you can’t overcome your biases, and thus you need to recuse yourself from the peer reviewing duty and let someone more objective than you (at least in those instances) do it.
(Hat-tip to Zuska, who brought the story to my attention.)