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Transparency: the journey begins

Analysing the true contribution of openness is critical in publication planning

Beginning signTransparency is a current watchword within all aspects of publication planning and helpful advances have been made in recent years. However, the question is: how far down the road of increased transparency should the industry travel?

Consider the case of publishing pharma-supported/publicly-funded research in a peer review journal. Authors are urged to state their potential (mostly financial) conflicts of interest and this can be meaningful. There are also journals that publish reviewer comments with the final article and one brave journal that publishes all manuscript iterations from submission to acceptance, with accompanying reviewer comments and author responses (see PLoS Currents).

The connection to industry sponsors is critical, but is it an automatic taint that pharma/devices companies be involved, as some reviewers seem to think? In which case could their journals perhaps have a stated policy for pharma-supported material?

What about who actually wrote an article? How detailed should that disclosure be? The contribution from medical writers can occasionally be complex – such as keeping on top of 11 rounds of author revisions – and increasingly journals are, correctly in our opinion, requiring statements of contribution for this type of involvement. However, is the focus too much on the authors and their pharma partners? Not all journals publish conflicts of interest for their editorial boards, and even fewer name their reviewers, let alone publish their conflicts of interest.

What of the published material? Should any articles be hidden away behind passwords and subscription-only access/pay per article? Should journals declare their business models, and identify how much income is raised by subscription, advertising etc? And for whose benefit is all this to be made transparent? Is it partly defensive, paying the penalty for the lack of transparency 10–15 years ago?

Certainly the pre-emptive statements made by pharma companies detailing payments to authors before the Sunshine Act illuminates any remaining dark corners, but do they seem like a move to head off criticism, either of unwillingness or occlusion, for what was not seen as a problem at the time?

While such payments might occasion little comment within the medical publishing community, there is now a wider audience, the public, for whom this is all new, and for some a surprise that researchers/academics receive any income other than their stipends. And that's just the hard cash covered: what about religious or political influences, so much harder to specify, and so subjective? How far should it go?

So, a degree of transparency has arrived in the realms of peer-reviewed publications and given another slant to how those publications are read, but it's got to be more than just 'show me the money'.

The overdue journey into increased transparency, here or in publication planning generally, is most welcome and has only just begun. We need to analyse the true contribution of transparency practice towards providing balanced, accurately reported scientific literature, and decide how to improve it to give a full picture of what is going on, and why.

Cate FosterThe Author
Cate Foster (CMPP) is a senior medical editor at Watermeadow Medical, a leading medical communications company. In the interests of transparency, she also has 17 years' experience of working on journals, society-and publisher-owned, for a well-known publishing company. Does that change your impression of this article?
Email her at:


5th April 2011


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