Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Great McGovern Lecture

This morning MLA attendees in Philadelphia listened to Arthur Caplan, bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, a man with a list of credentials so long that Laurie Thompson lost her place as she was reading them in an introduction Caplan said he wished "his mother had been here for."

The subject of Caplan's talk was "Peer Review in Science and Medicine: Does It or Can It Work?" In his talk, Caplan offered a description of conflicts of interest and how they affect scientific publishing. He provided several examples to illustrate conflict of interest, the need to disclose conflicts, and the problem of peer review:

* A center who produced a study which found that Walmart's low wages costs California taxpayers $86 million in health care and public assistance -- the center was found to be funded in part (10%) by organized labor.

* Positive results bias resulting from industry funding of scientific research. For more information, the reader is referred to this 2006 JAMA article by Ridker and Torres.

* The Korean cloning scandal , the authors' failure to disclose financial interest in the AtriCure/atrial fibrillation studies, and the manufacture of data by a Norwegian oral cancer researcher.

Possible politically-motivated bias was discussed with regard to an article published in JAMA related to fetal pain. This article was criticized because the authors were found to be pro-choice and/or have ties to abortion clinics. The question was raised: how much information do need to know about authors? How much disclosure is necessary?

His message to librarians was to get involved in and add our voices to this issue. Solutions mainly related to "beefing up" the peer review process (compensation for reviewers, disclosure for authors as well as editors -- see recent JCI article, more statistical analysis of data/need for statistical expertise, publishing of the actual peer reviews online, and anonymity of reviewes for a limited time. He proposes a more transparent process, and promotion of understanding of the scientific processs itself -- that "scientific truth comes through verification and attempts to falsify" findings.

A scintillating question and answer period followed and Caplan encouraged attendees to communicate with him via

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