In Thank You for Smoking, a female journalist sleeps with Nick Naylor to get dirt on his tobacco industry cohorts. The reality is not that difficult, but almost. Harris describes issues of scientific misconduct as “very ripe” for more reporting, but he cautions repeatedly about the obstacles that face reporters. In addition to the challenge of finding good sources who can spot financial transgressions, explaining how those transgressions affect the underlying research is difficult.
“I wish I did have a good way of doing this,” he said. “Getting past editors is difficult. Even with my story today, I think there’s a fair number of people that will say, ‘So what? Did this money really change the study?’ It’s very difficult to get a bottom-line impact to the piece, where you can say, somebody took this money and it changed what we thought we knew about a disease, and that is outrageous.” Indeed, Weill Medical College’s connections to the tobacco funding are unlikely to sink the notion that early screening for cancer is sometimes a good idea. A major epidemiological study by the National Cancer Institute, the results of which are due in 2010, is expected to provide useful new data.
While reporting his article, Harris received an email from Drs. Henschke and Yankelevitz saying that their foundation no longer accepts money from the tobacco industry. He also noted in the piece that the Journal of the American Medical Association had published corrections related to patent interests revealed by The Cancer Letter. When I pointed out that the New England Journal of Medicine, which published the original paper on CT scanning in 2006, hadn’t done the same, Harris said that the public-and reporters-should not expect journals to shoulder universities’ and research institutions’ neglected responsibility to police misconduct:
The journals are in this business for science-they analyze the science. They don’t have rooms full of accountants to check whether disclosures are appropriate or complete … I guess if I had any advice for reporters, I would say, ask your local university if they’ve set up any associated [non-profit organizations]; many universities have an associated charity or foundation through which they solicit donations from corporate sponsors to support medical research. Find out about who those corporate sponsors are. Unfortunately, many universities set up these associated charities and foundations in such a way that they don’t have to disclose much publicly-ask about that, you know, try to push.