I once got a press release about a “landmark” study showing cranberry juice could cut the risk of urinary tract infections.
This study piqued my interest. All the credible research I’d seen on cranberry juice and UTIs suggested the sweet stuff had little or no effect. So was this new study really a game changer?
When I looked at the paper a little more closely, I found out it wasn’t just funded by Ocean Spray, one of the world’s leading makers of cranberry juice; it was also co-authored by Ocean Spray staff scientists. The company was involved in nearly every step of the scientific process, even helping to write the paper. Upon closer scrutiny, it became clear that the study authors made a bunch of small decisions that helped ensure the “amazing” results that conveniently favored guzzling more of the company’s product.
This example doesn’t come in isolation. Industry is a big funder of research, and companies don’t shell out money for science out of the kindness of their hearts. They do it to ensure their products get a scientific stamp of approval.
There’s another big problem: It can be really hard to figure out if a study has been influenced by industry. Conflict of interest information is often buried deep at the end of an article, just before the list of citations.
Now that’s about to change: PubMed — a powerful taxpayer-funded search engine for medical study abstracts that doctors, patients, and the media rely on — just started displaying conflict of interest data up front. New information about funding sources and potential conflicts will now appear right below study abstracts, which means readers don’t have even to open a journal article to be made aware of any possible industry influence over studies.