MQ researcher says open access keeps medical research honest

Article written by Dr Adam Dunn, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Health Informatics, Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University.


Can you tell me more about the research project related to your work on financial competing interests in biomedical research?

Much of the work I have been doing in the last few years has been focused on biases in the way clinical evidence is produced, reported, and translated into practice. Financial competing interests are known to be good signals for the potential for bias in research—so while bias can occur without competing interests and competing interests do not necessarily lead to bias, we now know quite a lot about the systematic differences between what is produced by people with financial competing interests compared to everything else.

We recently published a review of competing interest disclosures in biomedical research, but there was a relatively easy-to-spot hidden message in the review, which was that disclosure is currently inadequate for several reasons. Because disclosures are inconsistent from journal to journal and from article to article; because they are often hidden behind paywalls; and because they are disclosed in ways that make it very hard to synthesise so that we can measure their associations with bias in biomedical research. So while we know competing interests have been responsible for influencing clinical practice in some very scary ways in the past, we are yet to provide true open access to them.

Why have you chosen to publish some of your research in the open access journal Research Integrity & Peer Review as opposed to a closed access journal?

In the spirit of declaring competing interests, I should also say that I am an associate editor for Research Integrity & Peer Review, so my interest in promoting the kind of research that examines the links between research integrity and open access is also because I want to see more of it published in the journal.

More broadly, I advocate for publishing research in ways that make it more accessible to the public regardless of whether it is via gold, green, as a pre-print, in an institutional repository, or even shared through social media or peer-to-peer networks. But there are other aspects of “open” in research that impact on research integrity, and this journal is likely to deal with them as it grows. First, making the data that underpins a piece of research publicly available alongside a published article is critical to integrity because it allows for replication and re-use. Second, I believe we need to do a much better job of reporting competing interests in an open way, not hidden behind paywalls but in ways that make them easy to access, consistent, and machine-readable.

To me, that is what “open” is really all about—not just free to access but also the provision of access to humans and machines, and in ways that make it easy and legal to re-use and combine.

What has been the greatest value of publishing in open access journals instead of in traditional journals?

Given that I spend a lot of time examining how clinical evidence makes its way into the public domain, so it is important to me that my work is also available to the public and that I engage with the public about the research I produce. That is probably also the reason why the Altmetric scores for my published articles are high compared to the much less impressive citation counts.

It might seem that ideas about how to better measure financial conflicts of interest would only be of interest to other researchers and reviewers but it turns out that the effects of competing interests are most acutely felt in news media and the avenues through which clinical evidence makes its way into the public domain.

How often do we see headlines proclaiming a new miracle cure only to discover that it relates to a selectively reported study funded by the company trying to sell that miracle cure? In a media environment where it is so difficult to tell the difference between science and advertising, it is especially important that we provide free and open access to the full published results. This is one of the areas of research that currently captures much of my interest—and my aim in the next couple of years is to better understand the connection between the quality and integrity of research that is being produced and the consumption of that research by the public.


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