Italian Epidemiology journal asked to take action regarding conflict of interest disclosure

Mon, Aug 3, 2015


Kathleen Ruff,

In an Open Letter, sent July 17, 2015, a number of scientists from Italy and other countries submitted a complaint to the journal, Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health (EBPH) regarding failure to disclose conflicting interests in an article Critical reappraisal of Balangero chrysotile and mesothelioma risk, published by the journal in early 2015.

The Open Letter is available here.

EBPH is the official journal of the Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology. On its website, EBPH states: “All submissions must include disclosure of all relationships that could be viewed as presenting a potential conflict of interest.” No conflict of interest disclosure statement for the authors and others involved in the article was, however, included in the article. Thus the fact, for example, that one of the authors has been paid for many years by asbestos lobby organisations to help them sell chrysotile asbestos in Asia and elsewhere and has acted as a paid representative of the asbestos industry was not disclosed.

EBPH requires authors to include a statement regarding financial or other support for an article. The Balangero article includes the following statement – “SUPPORT: Dr Ilgren wrote this paper when a Consultant to companies in asbestos litigation.” This implies that Ilgren, the lead writer, received funding for the article, but the statement is ambiguous.

The article argues that cases of mesothelioma amongst workers at the former chrysotile asbestos mine at Balangero and amongst nearby residents were not caused by exposure to chrysotile asbestos.

EBPH published two other articles by the same authors at about the same time. One article states that exposure of workers to extremely high levels of Bolivian crocidolite asbestos was harmless to health. The second article states that although mesothelioma clusters have not been reported in Kandovan, it is a plausible hypothesis that many cases of mesothelioma in Iran may be due to naturally occurring fibrous zeolites.

The Open Letter was sent to the Editors-in-Chief of EBPH, Stefania Boccia and Carlo La Vecchia, the founding, executive and consulting editors, as well as to the board members of the Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology.

In their Open Letter, the scientists call on EBPH to:

  • Publish a Conflict of Interest Statement for each of the authors of the Balangero article.
  • Include Conflict of Interest Statements in all future published articles.
  • Publish Conflict of Interest Statements on its website for its editorial staff and members of its editorial boards.
  • Require peer reviewers to provide a Conflict of Interest Statement and not participate in reviewing any article when they have potential conflicting interests.
  • Join the more than 7,000 journals that are members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).
  • Exercise particular vigilance with regard to submissions from authors who carry out industry-financed work that puts forward conclusions that serve the industry’s interests and that go against the findings of independent scientists and reputable scientific agencies.

In their Open Letter, the scientists also ask that:

  • The Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology and its journal initiate a transparent, participatory process to put in place clear and effective ethical standards for both the organisation and its journal, including Conflict of Interest Disclosure Requirements.
  • The Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology publish Conflict of Interest Statements on its website for all its board members.

Response from Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health

On July 23, the two Editors-in-Chief sent the following response to the Open Letter.

 Thank you for your message.

 Most of the issues you have raised are currently under discussion with the publisher of EBPH, as ethical integrity of authors, editors, and reviewers, represent an issue of paramount importance for our journal.

Thank you for pointing us potential conflicts of interest by some of the authors of this paper. There is a scientific correspondence submitted on this paper, in fact Dr Magnani wrote a letter few weeks ago to the EICs, and a reply from Dr Ilgren is expected to come within the next month.

In the meanwhile, however, we have already asked Dr. Ilgren and the authors of the original paper to confirm and disclose their possible conflicts in this context. The same will be for few other papers that Dr Ilgren has published in our journal in the past year.

We will come back to you with more details after discussing with Publisher and the Executive Committee of the Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology the adoption and implementation of a clear policy requiring Conflict of Interest Statements.

Stefania Boccia

Carlo La Vecchia

NOTE: More coverage will be provided on further developments regarding this issue.

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