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PubMed is urged to include competing interest information in abstracts

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i2018 (Published 07 April 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2018
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. Seattle

Five United States senators and a group of scientists and physicians have called on the US National Library of Medicine to require journals to include information about authors’ competing interests in the abstracts of articles submitted to PubMed, the library’s online database of biomedical literature.

The database is a major resource for both lay and professional researchers: it provides free online access to more than 25 million citations from journals and books in the fields of biomedicine and health, including life sciences, behavioral sciences, chemical sciences, and bioengineering.

In a 30 March letter1 to Francis S Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Betsy L Humphreys, the library’s acting and deputy director, 62 researchers and health care providers and six advocacy organizations argued that information about competing interests was needed in abstracts because articles reporting industry funded research were much more likely to have findings that supported the funders’ interests. By including the authors competing interests, they wrote, abstracts “would provide users with concise, critical information that would help them evaluate the credibility of a study’s findings and conclusions.”

In the case where the authors had competing interests, they said, a typical disclosure might read: “This study was funded by Pfizer Corp. John Smith reported receiving consulting fees from Pfizer Corp. and Dow Chemical Co. Joan Jones reported receiving research support from Procter & Gamble and speaking honoraria from seven food and drug companies.” Since most journals routinely provide information about funding and competing interests, adding such information to abstracts “would be perfectly feasible and would add great value for researchers, practicing physicians, general readers, and others who use PubMed,” they wrote.

In another letter also sent to Collins and Humphreys,2 five Democrat senators noted that many users of PubMed—including consumers, journalists, and policy makers—did not have access to the full text of the articles. “Accordingly, it is troubling that the abstract or other bibliographic information presented in a PubMed entry does not communicate authors’ potential conflicts of interest, such as funding sources or significant investments, which is only disclosed in the full text of an article,” they wrote.

“As the premier online database for scientific journals, and a public resource made possible with taxpayer dollars, PubMed has the unique opportunity and responsibility to make significant strides in improving the integrity of scientific research,” they wrote. The letter was co-signed by senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, both of Massachusetts; Brian Schatz of Hawaii; and Richard Durban of Illinois.

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