Is Corporate Ghostwriting of Journal Articles a Threat to Environmental Information?

March 9, 2011

As the scandal over corporate-funded ghostwriting of medical journal articles metastasizes, environmental gumshoes may want to revisit possible conflicts of interest in their own field.

While there may be strong rules against conflict of interest in the agencies that perform and fund — and the journals that publish — environmental sciences research, veteran investigators say those rules are often poorly enforced.

Before picking up stories based on journals in the environmental sciences, reporters might pause to ask about those journals' policies on transparency and potential conflict of interest. And then ask about enforcement, and any relevant conflict declarations on the article in question.

One example of a rigorous policy is that of the well-respected Environmental Health Perspectives.

Ghostwriting scandals are not unheard of on the environmental beat. Sometimes, consultants working for chemical companies or others actually write government science findings.

There was considerable outrage in 2007 when it was discovered that a company called Sciences International, which had financial ties to the plastics industry, was writing up the findings of the National Toxicology Program on the safety of the plastics chemical BPA. That scandal was uncovered by Marla Cone, then with the Los Angeles Times. The NTP eventually disowned the work and found reasons for health concerns over BPA. Later, when the Food and Drug Administration found BPA safe, Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that the findings had been written by a chemical industry lobbyist.

Another firm, the Weinberg Group, was investigated by then House Energy Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) after allegations that it helped chemical companies fake science to suggest that BPA was safe. Dingell started his probe after reporter Paul Thacker, then of Environmental Science & Technology, uncovered the conflict. That story was based partly on a letter from the Weinberg Group to the DuPont chemical company offering to place articles favorable to BPA in science journals.