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The Trouble with Transparency

Last week we posted an article by two journalists, Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife, who argued that the integrity of the scientific and medical literature depends on protecting tools that ensure greater transparency about financial ties to industry that could potentially bias research results. We have heard from many groups who were deeply offended by the article. Our intention was not to cause offense and we wish to express our apologies to any members of the scientific community who felt the post misrepresented their situation. A desire for transparency is in line with the competing interests policies of PLOS, but we appreciate that the realities of implementation may pose challenges. We have since offered to others, including Dr. Kevin Folta, one of the cases mentioned in the post, the opportunity to contribute their views to the debate, under similar conditions, on this blog.

The tools in question in the original piece by Thacker and Seife include public records and Freedom of Information Act requests. These tools, the authors argue, give reporters, and members of the public, access to documents with the potential to uncover undeclared conflicts of interest, dubious research practices, fraud and scientific misconduct. Without these tools, the authors go on to say, the integrity of the scientific and medical literature could be in jeopardy.

We felt the message—that if researchers disclose any and all ties, financial or otherwise, to industries that benefit from research that they engage in, it helps build public confidence in that research by virtue of showing there is nothing to hide—is one that is well worth debating.

That financial conflicts of interest can influence research results is well-documented in the scientific and medical literature. Against a backdrop where research output doubles nearly every decade and concerns over fraud, misconduct and research reliability are on the rise, we at PLOS Biology believe that efforts to boost scientific integrity, literacy and transparency are sorely needed. That’s why when two journalists with a track record for exposing corruption in science came to us with an article outlining the reasons to protect tools to ensure transparency – even though many scientists see the tools as invasive and disruptive — we offered to consider their piece for our blog.

Nonetheless, we appreciate that some of the parties mentioned in the article took grave offense at the authors’ characterization of their situation. In particular, Dr. Kevin Folta, one of several cases mentioned in the article, has publicly stated some of his issues with the article and the authors’ interpretation. Unfortunately, our processes went wrong and we failed to respond as quickly as we should have to Dr. Folta’s initial message to us. We are reviewing our processes to ensure that a similar failure will not be repeated.

We continue to believe that this is an important, if highly charged, issue that merits discussion. On Monday we offered Dr. Folta the opportunity to provide his views on conflicts of interest on PLOS Biologue. We invite your comments and are currently approaching others to showcase and present a variety of views and experiences relating to the FOIA, COI disclosures and transparency in scientific research and publishing.


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