Epidemiology often addresses research problems where results have implications for many people. Research of this nature has to be of good quality and conclusions should reflect validity and sources of bias in a fair manner, not influenced by any other ’outside’ factors. Epidemiologists with conflicts of interest – “defined as a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest” – should declare these conflicts when they seek funding, report their results, provide legal opinions, and in scientific correspondence. We also recognize that conflicts of interest go further than financial conflicts; political views, prior trust in the hypothesis and even a sense of ownership of the hypothesis all play a role together with many other factors, including family and other relationships. For these reasons data should always be available for others to reanalyze.
Epidemiology Monitor had a full issue on undeclared conflicts of interest in their January/February 2014 issue (http://www.epimonitor.net/). These papers provide serious case stories for a number of well-known colleagues, including the late Patricia Buffler who was President Elect of the IEA, scheduled to become President at the Anchorage World Congress in August, 2014. Since Buffler died September 26, 2013 at the age of 75 she can no longer defend herself, explain her actions and correct mistakes. She is therefore a vulnerable victim for any kind of acquisition and she enters a line of similar cases with prominent persons, including Richard Doll, Johannes Ipsen, who after their death where accused of actions that could adversely influence our interpretation of their research results and contribution to epidemiology. Allegations of this type may impact on their legacy and reputation.
We advocate great care in doing this. It will not only affect the deceased’s reputation but may also hurt close relatives and friends. A proper evaluation of published research findings of epidemiologists no longer alive may be needed but such an investigation should be in the hands of an independent committee, staffed with necessary expertise to provide a fair and unbiased assessment. Committees for Scientific Misconduct have been established in academic institutions of many countries and they should have the necessary scientific, legal and ethical standards to deal with accusations of conflicts of interest regardless of whether the person is alive or dead. Requiring such a procedure to be used will also eliminate cases without real substance before they get started. Using public media to denounce individuals for scientific misconduct who can no longer defend themselves is unacceptable.
Readers of this Blog will notice that this is signed by only one member of the committee but all agree that the debate is important and it will be continued at the WCE in Anchorage.