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AHCJ releases letter to the editor of JAMA Date: 04/02/09

April 2, 2009

To the editor: 

The Association of Health Care Journalists objects to any effort by the Journal of the American Medical Association to silence whistle-blowers who call attention to potential conflicts of interest involving study authors. 

In an editorial (PDF) published March 20, JAMA said it will inform anyone filing a complaint about a potential conflict of interest that they "should not reveal this information to third parties or the media while the investigation is under way."

JAMA also said it would require whistle-blowers to provide a "written detailed explanation of the unreported conflicts of interest and provide documentation to support the allegation."

JAMA's policy is counterproductive. It could discourage potential whistle-blowers from coming forward with crucial information that physicians and the general public urgently need to make informed decisions about medical care.

The policy comes after JAMA took five months to reveal that the author of an antidepressant study failed to disclose his financial relationship with a drug company. While JAMA was investigating, a researcher who had alerted JAMA to the potential conflict of interest contacted reporters and wrote about the matter in another journal.

JAMA's editorial says the researcher's actions constituted "a serious ethical breach of confidentiality that not only potentially damages our ability to complete a fair and thorough investigation ... but also potentially damages JAMA's reputation by the insinuation that we would fail to (investigate)." 

To the contrary, science requires a full and open hearing of information. Allowing scrutiny of possible conflicts of interest by the public and the media ultimately leads to greater transparency and trust. JAMA would better serve the public by focusing its efforts on diligently identifying researchers who fail to report conflicts of interest rather than intimidating those who seek to ensure that the public is fully informed.

AHCJ Board of Directors