Hypothetical scenario: A research paper provides compelling data on a highly effective new cancer therapy. After publication, it comes to light that the author was an undisclosed paid employee (with stock options) of the pharmaceutical company. Is this an instance of financial bias?
Real-life scenario: A biomedical journal publishes a special brain anatomy supplement sponsored by surgical microscope companies. The industry financial sponsorship is fully disclosed, and the guest editor’s and authors’ financial disclosures (which state no financial association with the sponsoring companies) are published as part of the articles in the supplement. Is this an instance of financial bias?
Financial bias defined/explained
Financial bias can be described as “any financial involvement or entanglement between an author, editor, or peer reviewer of an academic article and that of an external entity which has an interest in the article.” Such entanglements have negative effects, in that they can: (a) produce results or conclusions that differ from the truth, or (b) sway someone’s judgment in a particular direction, favouring a certain outcome over others. Financial bias offers financial incentives to individuals or groups to give unmerited favour for a product or company which is not justified by the data.
Why it exists
Why does financial bias exist? One reason is simple greed: a researcher wants to benefit financially from a company whose products, inventions, or discoveries are involved in their research. Scientific companies are keen to receive validation and/or tacit approval by being mentioned in a published, peer-reviewed article in a prestigious journal.
Another causal reason for financial bias is more benign: often, companies and researchers with financial interest in new products, drugs, or devices may be the only entities that have crucial research data. It may be impossible for financially neutral parties to have access to the available data.
The pervasive nature of financial bias: motivations, who, and how
Scenario #3: The editor of a journal receives financial bonuses if that journal generates a specified amount of annual revenue. Such bonus clauses in their contract may encourage them to publish sponsored supplements or articles on products which could lead to greater advertising revenue generated by those products. Is this an instance of financial bias?
Financial bias in academic publishing can carry profoundly negative effects. It can pollute the entire spectrum of research, including its design, analysis, interpretation, and reporting.1 Moreover, it can affect researchers, authors, journal editors, peer reviewers, and even publishers.
The prospect of receiving non-trivial financial reward for recommending approval for an article blinds the eyes of those who should see and evaluate data in a dispassionate, neutral fashion. Because of financial bias, unfounded scientific research can be approved and published. Even worse, it can lead to potentially dangerous new drugs or devices being approved and released to the market.
Financial bias can be especially difficult to detect because while modern peer review processes request and publish financial disclosures of authors (as well as peer reviewers and editors), such disclosures are voluntary and unverified. Journal editorial offices do not have the capacity or legal/financial authority to investigate the veracity of their reviewers’ financial disclosures. The “honour system” of financial disclosures leaves open the very real possibility of dishonesty, which may never come to the surface.
Managing and minimising financial bias
What can be done? A few things come immediately to mind:
· Financial disclosures—Authors, reviewers, and editors need to provide updated financial disclosures to the journal regularly. Although disclosures don’t necessarily remove potential financial involvement, they represent a good-faith attempt to reveal financial connections to industry partners. Publishing the financial disclosures of authors and reviewers on all accepted articles promotes transparency and helps readers know whether any potential conflicts of interest are involved.
· Recusals of reviewers who have financial interest in products—Giving reviewers freedom to remove themselves from the review process on papers for which they have a financial involvement goes a long way to help minimise financial bias.
· Processes to minimise financial bias—Journals need to develop internal processes which promote all parties to disclose their financial investments in submitted papers. Internal and external oversight groups evaluate potential conflicts of interest on a case-by-case basis.
Financial bias is a powerful and pervasive reality in scientific publishing. Although much can be done to help identify, disclose, and minimise bias, more needs to be done to identify, disclose and minimise financial entanglements from research publication.
1. Sackett DL. Bias in analytic research. In: Ibrahim MA, eds. The case-control study consensus and controversy. Pergamon; 1979: 51–63.