Academic Integrity and Vioxx

Drug company Merck and its product Vioxx are in the news again. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has examined the documents from the legal proceedings against Merck in connection with the withdrawal of Vioxx from the market in 2004. From their analysis, a significant number of journal articles – mostly review articles rather than articles reporting clinical trials – were written in-house and senior academics were brought in late to be lead named author. At least one of these academics has disputed the accusations made in the JAMA article.

The most serious moral concern here seems to be the failure to disclose the source of funding on the review articles and perhaps not being honest about who did what work in the writing of the papers. The former of these matters most because it may allow readers to cast a more critical eye over the findings of the research in question. It is unclear that the latter has quite the same effect.

Aside from this it is not entirely clear why these authorship issues are so problematic. There is little if any connection between questions about the level of work done on the papers by the authors and the problems associated with Vioxx. The senior academics have their names on these papers so it is in their interests to ensure its quality. If the science is shoddy or blatantly promoting Merck products, reputations will be affected.

Indeed, one implication of these revelations might be that the lead, external authors did not scrutinise carefully enough the work to which their name was being attached. This is certainly unprofessional.

The general authorship question however looks to be a common kind of problem in the current publishing climate. There is a long tradition of junior researchers doing most of the work and the senior researchers taking the credit or indeed signing on to ensure taht the paper is accepted. Although there is some authorship guidance, the extent to which the system is played will depend on the particular context and what is to be gained by the individuals in question. It is hard to see why gaming the system when there are commercial interests at stake is that different from gaming the system to further one’s career or get an important publication.

Academic integrity is important but it does not seem additionally important here. Moreover it is mostly the responsibility of academics and their journals.

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