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Last this year in this journal, Barbour and colleagues reported a study of “marketing trials” in leading medical journals (Trials 2016;17:31). In this commentary I discuss their research, describe new analyses of the study cohort and consider measures to address marketing within academic medical literature.
Barbour et al. sought to identify a subgroup of “marketing trials” within leading medical journals, but in reality, nearly all industry-financed trials serve marketing functions, and many exhibit marketing-related features, including biases, in their framing, methodology or reporting. I conducted new analyses of the cohort of Barbour et al., showing that most trials funded exclusively by drug manufacturers had direct involvement of the manufacturer in design, analysis and reporting, and features supportive of product seeding. However, these commercial enterprises were without exception presented to journal readers as academic-led projects, using attributional spin, which should itself be considered an important form of marketing bias. Barbour et al. correctly conclude that commercial bias in industry clinical trials articles often requires expertise to recognize, and in many cases cannot be identified from the published journal report. Several potential remedies are discussed, including independent clinical research, data sharing, improved reporting guidance, improved tools for assessing research quality, reforms to article attribution, submission checklists and new editorial standards.
Medicine’s journals have a responsibility to uphold rigorous scientific and reporting standards, require ready trials data access and ensure the commercial dimensions of research are brought prominently to their readers’ attention. Failure to meet these responsibilities constitutes an enduring threat to the integrity of biomedical literature.