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Editorial Snapshot: Industry bias in research: is transparency enough?

- A.S., Editor

Potential biases in scientific research and how they are addressed are important indicators of the quality and validity of the work. The growing connection between industry and research institutions has raised concerns in academic communities, especially in biomedical fields, over the biases associated with conflicts of interest. For example, in a previous study examining the role of company sponsorship on research outcomes, it was found that industry-sponsored studies were more likely to have favorable efficacy results.

Researchers and doctors alike are aware that if medical research outcomes become biased by the companies that manufacture drugs and devices, the overall trends in clinical practices can become skewed without the patient’s best interests in mind, which presents a serious ethical dilemma. In addition to affecting the prices and types of medical drugs and equipment that may eventually reach the market, legal policies hinging on the results of research may also be impacted. A recent case has caught the critical scrutiny of both the global academic community and the American public: e-cigarette maker, Juul Labs, Inc., has purchased an entire Special Issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior (AJHB) for $51,000. Eleven studies were published in this Special Issue on the use of e-cigarettes, including Juul’s products.

Notably, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was previously set to make a ruling on the marketing and sale of all e-cigarette brands on September 9th, 2021. Among the factors that the FDA takes into consideration is whether e-cigarette use would assist current smokers in smoking cessation, or conversely, whether they would lead non-smokers to begin tobacco use. At the time of writing, millions of e-cigarette products have already been required to be removed from the market. However, the ruling on Juul products has been postponed due to the need for further review.

Many of the studies published in the AJHB’s Special Issue on Juul conclude that e-cigarettes benefit current smokers who would not have otherwise quit, and thus improve public health. These are available on AJHB’s website as open access articles for anyone to read. It remains to be seen how the research sponsored by Juul Labs will affect the FDA ruling; however, it is clear that full transparency in disclosures of interest is an indispensable practice in conducting scientific research.

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