Let’s say you are a highly experienced scientist. You’ve been an academic for decades, you’ve supervised many students and published hundreds of scientific papers. Due to your experience, you’re also on the editorial board of scientific journals, involved in your university’s management structures and you act as a consultant for, or are involved with, various governmental bodies and even with different companies and industries.
Because of your experience you are also well aware that it is of critical importance that your involvement with any company from any industry has to be declared. All scientific journals ask authors to declare any possible, financial or otherwise, conflicts of interests (COI) that they might have. Most universities also require academics to publicly declare any type of possible COI’s. There is nothing strange about this – everything has to be transparent and above board.
But what will happen if you intentionally fail to declare that you have a COI? For example: you publish numerous scientific research papers on products or services sold by a company, and you intentionally omit to declare that you are also a consultant for this company? Well, if people find out about this, all of your research results will suddenly become highly questionable because you intentionally did not declare your COI. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a consultant but there is a problem if you don’t declare it. The problem gets even bigger if you receive consultation fees or donations from this company – if this goes undeclared, then you are in serious trouble.
Unfortunately, this type of thing does happen and usually the scientists involved will be found guilty of scientific misconduct and depending on the severity of the case they might even lose their jobs. It should however be about the principle and not the amount of money involved, but having said that, a $10 dollar infringement will typically be ignored whilst a million dollar undeclared donation will get you into serious trouble.
The example given above is not hypothetical – it is a real. It is just another example of how the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) operates. A recent article explained the issue, that as an acupuncturist turned researcher you have a COI by default – but let’s ignore that for the moment. The acupuncture gurus at the NICM, Alan Bensoussan and Caroline Smith, never seem to declare their COI’s in their acupuncture publications – and they have been publishing quite a lot of them lately. This is interesting for a number of reasons.
-They are both highly experienced scientists and therefore they are fully aware of what a COI is and hence they intentionally omit to declare a COI,
-The NICM did receive a substantial donation from these clinics (so there is financial gain),
–Students of the NICM/WSU find employment at these clinics (info used to attract new students?),
-WSU, in all likelihood, know about this COI because donations have to go through their research office,
-The clinics use their research publications as well as their presence on the team as a marketing tool (Here is a wonderful example. First read how they describe it on their website and then the paper – obviously missing that important declaration of having a COI),
-WSU will probably do zilch about this, because the NICM is one of the Institutes that generates the highest amount of external income for the university – it is after all, all about money.
-WSU is known to delete information once they are exposed and are therefore brothers in crime with the NICM.
So, a clear case of a COI which was intentionally not declared. Now the question needs to be asked; why didn’t they just simply declare to have this COI?
The reason is rather simple. Scientists know that acupuncture is a pseudoscience – it doesn’t really work for the treatment of anything. As soon as the NICM publish an acupuncture paper and they include their COI with these clinics, scientists, and for that matter, anyone reading the paper will question the results – and rightfully so. Therefore, they have to look as if they are conducting their research completely independently – it is supposed to give their results a bit more credibility. But even without this COI issue, they will struggle because external scientists looked at some of their acupuncture publications and the statement was made that it constitutes scientific misconduct – and this was based only on their experimental design, results and how they market their results in an overly positive way to the public. Add the COI issue to this mix, and all their acupuncture publications becomes highly questionable.
The risk that they took by not declaring their COI is, of course, once people find out about it they will lose their credibility – or what is left of it. But then again, who will now actually go and study the modus operandi of the NICM – well, that is what we are here for!
This brings us to the current large acupuncture clinical trial at the NICM, funded by the NHMRC to the tune $ 600 000, focusing on acupuncture and IVF (this also happens to be the ‘speciality’ of the clinics for which they are consultants). When this funding was awarded to the NICM in 2013 this study was labelled “Universities in a wacky waste of cash”. That pretty much sums it up, but will the NICM declare their COI when they publish these results? Highly unlikely – for some reason they consider themselves to be above the law.
We have written a letter to the editors of three different journals where they’ve published some of their acupuncture research to ask them for their thoughts on this matter. We have also written a letter to the director of these clinics to clarify what kind of (financial) benefits the NICM receive in return for their consultation services. No response from anyone yet, but let’s give it a week or so.