The online, open-access journal PLoS Medicine said this week that it will no longer accept for publication reports of research sponsored by tobacco companies. The journal joins two of its sister publications, PLoS Biology and PLoS One, in formally adopting this position, but the announcement might be viewed as self-serving in that the journal has never published such a paper. In fact, PLoS One has published only two.
The decision highlights an ongoing dispute among journal editors. The leading tobacco control journal, Tobacco Control, does not ban industry-sponsored research, in part because it does not wish to appear biased. The BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, has a similar policy, arguing that such a decision is an unacceptable form of censorship and that papers can be judged through the normal vetting process.
The editors of PLoS Medicine cited two reasons for their decision. "First, tobacco is indisputably bad for health. Half of all smokers will die of tobacco use.... Tobacco interests in research cannot have a health aim -- if they did, tobacco companies would be better off shutting down business -- and therefore health research sponsored by tobacco companies is essentially advertising." Since publication in open access journals like PLoS Medicine is funded by research sponsors, "we believe it would be irresponsible to act as part of the machinery that enhances the reputation of an industry producing health-harming products."
Second, "we remain concerned about the industry's long-standing attempts to distort the science of and deflect attention away from the harmful effects of smoking.... We do not wish to provide a forum for companies' attempts to manipulate the science of tobacco's harms."
Not everyone agrees with them. According to Jeff Stier of the American Council on Science and Health -- not a tobacco-funded group -- "By deciding to no longer allow for research funded in any part by the tobacco industry, they're acknowledging that they're no longer able to evaluate science. It is the very role of journals to discern between good and bad science, and they're throwing their hands up in the air and saying, 'We can't do it.' "
-- Thomas H. Maugh II
Photo credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press