Lack of transparency about the BMJ’s income from the pharmaceutical industry
As part of the BMJ’s response to concerns raised with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) about failures of editorial integrity at the BMJ,(1) the CEO of the BMJ commented on the funding received from the pharmaceutical industry by the University of Oxford for independent research conducted by the Clinical Trial Service Unit (CTSU).(2) He did acknowledge that the CTSU has made information public about the amount, source and purpose of that funding. However, he did not mention the funding that the BMJ receives from industry, which had not been disclosed publicly.
Subsequent correspondence revealed that the BMJ has typically been receiving about £7.5M every year from the pharmaceutical industry for promotional and related activities:(3) my response to this disclosure is reproduced below. The BMJ’s Editor has stated that, prompted by this correspondence, she does now agree that the BMJ should have put detailed information about this funding into the public domain. However, it has still not done so, and nor have these potential financial conflicts of interest been disclosed in relevant editorials or commentaries.
Rory Collins, FRS
BHF Professor of Medicine & Epidemiology,
Head, Nuffield Department of Population Health,
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
14 March 2016
Dear Mr Brooks
Given its espousal of transparency, it is surprising that the BMJ has chosen not to make public the details of financial interests that might be relevant to the treatment of patients and to public health (and, indeed, would instead claim commercial privilege). As has been pointed out, if you were to make such information publicly available then it might help to avoid the repetition of previous failures by the BMJ to declare potentially relevant conflicts of interests because (to quote the BMJ’s Editor; March 2011) “it didn't occur to us to do so”.
It is a start that you have now stated that the BMJ received £7.5M from the pharmaceutical industry in 2015 for promotional and related activities. Although you have not addressed the request for detailed information about such income over the past 20 years (analogous to the information that we have made available for funding to Oxford University of our independently conducted research), your statement that the annual amounts do not vary much implies that the BMJ has received about £150M from the pharmaceutical industry during that period. (If that estimate is not correct then do please provide a revised figure.)
I would recommend that the BMJ publish prominently on its website the amounts that it has received each year from pharmaceutical companies (and, in case they have inadvertently been excluded, medical device and other health-care companies) and the purposes for which these payments have been made. The rationale for declaring such interests is that it allows people to decide for themselves (rather than, as you seem to suggest, the BMJ doing so for them) whether or not a material interest exists in a particular situation. By putting these data into the public domain, the BMJ would avoid being accused unreasonably of withholding relevant information about potential financial conflicts of interest.
Rory Collins, FRS
Head, Nuffield Department of Population Health
University of Oxford
Competing interests: I was a signatory of the submission to COPE about the way in which the BMJ failed to deal properly with misrepresentations in two papers that it published in October 2013. Oxford University has received funding from the pharmaceutical industry for independent research conducted by our group; we have a policy of not taking any personal payments directly or indirectly from the pharmaceutical industry (other than for reimbursement of travel and accommodation for taking part in scientific meetings): see https://www.ctsu.ox.ac.uk/.