Don’t avoid research bias. Manage it

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Phil Cola

Phil Cola

CLEVELAND, Ohio — University Hospitals Vice President Phil Cola thinks it’s an institution’s job — not a researcher’s — to worry about conflicts of interest.

A new study from the University of Michigan found that results from random cancer trials in top medical journals were more likely to favor industry when the industry funded the study. Plus, 29 percent of all cancer research published in the journals — the top five oncology publications and top three general medical journals — disclosed a conflict of interest. The most common conflict (17 percent) was industry funding, while 12 percent of papers included an author who was also an industry employee.

The study’s author suggests disclosure of conflicts isn’t enough and it’s time to take less money from industry sources.

But it is naive to think you can eliminate every bias, said Cola, UH’s vice president for research and technology management and a member of Case Western Reserve University’s Outside Interest Committee who helps manage that school’s new conflicts policy.

Below, he discusses efforts to manage ties to industry and other pressures research projects face.


Q. How does industry funding create bias in research?
A. Industry funding alone is not enough to be a conflict of interest. A conflict involves the combination of the researcher working (privately consulting or educating) for the funding industry while conducting the research.

Q. Why is industry funding important?
A. Imagine you or someone in your family has cancer. Wouldn’t you want all of the money available to fund research to help you or your loved one. Industry funding is a major source of capital. It would simply be a disservice to patients to refuse industry funds. Funding from all sources has the potential to bias – managing the bias is the key.

Q. What is an example of bias in other funding sources?
A. Say for example a cardiac doctor that is on the board of the American Heart Association is also conducting heart research utilizing funds from the AHA. The National Institute of Health (NIH) contracts grant reviewers. These are senior level professors and research conductors –- some of the best in their fields — who could be researching their expertise using funding from the NIH.

Q. How can the bias be mitigated?
A. The money is given to the institution – not the researcher. It’s the academic institution or medical center’s responsibility to manage the relationship between the researcher and the funding source. Developing a consistent, national system to better monitor the relationship is key. The method of disclosing biases should be similar at Yale and Case Western Reserve University, for example.

Q. What steps should the institution follow to manage potential bias?
A. Don’t allow the physician with the research idea lead the study, don’t allow the physician to chose the participating patients, don’t allow researchers to analyze the data for publication and don’t allow them to publish the data. The most important way to deal with potential biases is to disclose any conflict of interest up front. Disclosure is the most important.

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By Krystin Jarrell

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3 comments
Tiffany
Tiffany

What he was saying Joseph, is if you strongly believe in your idea, and want to do the research your self, but you are only one sided in the way you think, there is more chance that there will be bias and the information needed to be written and or published, when someone goes in with a one minded thing, they outcome will most likely be the same. They should not be able to do the research, or do the publishing, cause who knows what is the accurate information, take the gardsail shot for an example, why it is out on the market is BECAUSE OF BIAS, that is a GE version of the strand with aluminum in it, and it is killing girls world wide, but yet it is stilling being pushed, why BIAS. The world of medicine is so corrupted because the funding and the information comes from people on the same side, making it suck, cause the information we get as people for things is always persuaded by the industry.

Kylie Estwick
Kylie Estwick

Joseph - you completely missed the point of the article. If an investigator has a BIAS, that is clear and direct enough to warrant not letting him/her conduct the research, this is a completely reasonable approach. If you work for Pfizer or are being paid by Pfizer it is ethically wrong for you to try and push and promote studies utilizing Pfizer products. This is NOT how science and research work. If the scientific rationale is just, sound and worth doing, someone will come up with the idea. Research addresses questions where there are questions...it does not take a drug and try to apply it to every application. BIAS destroys progress and creativity, not the management of bias. Not only that, the appearance of bias alone destroys an institutions credibility.

joseph clark
joseph clark

Your last point will signal a tragedy for researchers and creativity. You appear to say that if I have an idea that will save lives; I cannot do the study, cannot analyze the data and cannot publish the results. So, I cannot be promoted, cannot be recognized as an expert in my field and pretty much turn over my life's work to someone else to lead the project. Not to mention the fact that you are suggesting that the world's expert on the subject of said studies should not be involved and the study should be done by less informed scientists. You seem to claim this will be better, but for whom? That conclusion also conflicts with your title because it is not managing conflict it is avoiding it to the detriment of the intellectuals who make discoveries.