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TOWARD HONEST RESEARCH



Published: Tue, August 14, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: If you are one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, whose acceptance of a research article for publication confers instant legitimacy, it doesn't seem a lot to ask that the people submitting manuscripts to you be willing to vouch for the independence of their research and the integrity of their conclusions. And yet the decision by a group of pre-eminent medical journals to seek such assurances has caused a stir. The New England Journal of Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, the Lancet and other scientific publications are expected to lay out new guidelines for journal submissions in a joint editorial in September. To qualify for publication, authors of the studies -- not their corporate sponsors -- must have final say over the conclusions in the paper, and they must have full access to all the data in the study.

These seemingly modest requirements reflect editors' concern about the growing influence of drug industry funding on academic research and the multiplying accounts of data withheld, spun or otherwise manipulated when the results proved disadvantageous to the funder. It's an important step, though there is more to do. The escalating financial stakes in drug research have sharpened worries about conflict of interest all across the research enterprise: A company may stand to earn billions from a successful drug, while big, multi-site drug trials cost so much that academic investigators must rely on the drug companies' money to do their work.

Restrictions: With favorable journal publication often spelling the difference between success and huge financial losses, companies have had more incentive, and have increasingly tended, to assert control over the studies and to offer their money only under agreements that restrict researchers' freedom to publish. Meanwhile, teaching hospitals depend more on such funds -- and are more likely to accept them with strings attached -- as health care cost-cutting dries up their other income sources.

If the leading academic medical centers, the Harvards and Stanfords of the world, want to back up the journals in their assault on this creeping problem, they should take a similarly firm line in refusing to accept companies' research money unless the independence and integrity of researchers' results is guaranteed. Some company money goes directly to investigators -- whose bargaining position will be much strengthened if publication in a leading journal depends on their intellectual independence -- but much goes to institutions. Their watchfulness on this front has greatly softened in recent years, partly out of fear that drug companies would take their money elsewhere.

That might still happen, of course-drug companies can get research done at contract agencies that they fund. But the intellectual resources and credibility conferred by academia, as by publication in a top journal, remain powerful. The journals have taken a good step toward preserving that credibility. Academic medical centers should back them up.

DUBIOUS ELECTION HOLIDAY

Salt Lake Tribune: Most of the recommendations of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform are sound. But turning Election Day into a national holiday and combining it with Veterans Day is not one of them.

The assumption underlying the proposal is that more people will vote if they do not have to go to work on Election Day. If there is solid evidence that an Election Day holiday would dramatically increase voter turnout, it might be worth a try.

But the language of the commission's recommendation does not sound as though that evidence exists. It says that a national holiday "might make voting easier for some workers." That's hardly a ringing endorsement. Elsewhere, the report concedes, "Some election administrators who have experience with local elections held on weekends observe no particular benefit in voter turnout." An election holiday could backfire if Americans use it as the tail of a four-day weekend and neglect voting in the process.

The report then explains other advantages of an Election Day holiday. More people, particularly high-school and college students, would be available to serve as poll workers and more public buildings, such as schools, could serve as suitable polling places. Those are distinct advantages, perhaps even important ones, but they are not enough by themselves to carry the argument for a national holiday.

The other problem, of course, is that veterans might not like the idea.

Veterans Day: Under the proposal, in even-numbered years, Veterans Day would be moved to coincide with Election Day, which falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Currently, Veterans Day falls on Nov. 11, and it generally is observed on the second Monday in November. The effect of the proposal would be to cause federal elections to occur on a federal holiday without the expense to employers of creating a new federal holiday.

Veterans might conclude that combining the two civic events into one day detracts from the honor due to those who served their country in the armed forces.

The election reform commission rebuts this by arguing for "holding the supreme national exercise of our freedom on the day we honor those who preserved it."

Now is the time for veterans to express their opinion about this issue to their representatives in Congress.




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