It’s a controversial claim and one that would be easy to dismiss if the man saying it hadn’t been Brian Deer. For those that don’t know Deer’s work at The Sunday Times and elsewhere, check out his articles on the MMR vaccine and Andrew Wakefield here. Deer says it took him months to dig behind the original paper to get the facts and he believes that a number of characteristics of medical research papers make them easy to falsify – such as the fact that patient records have to be anonymiszd to protect privacy. As a result, Deer claims clinical research is “chock full of charlatans”. Such “cheats” are not easy to spot, Deer says, though many eventually give themselves away because they get greedy.
The claim caused some ripples at the World Conference of Science Journalists session with former medics or medical journalists leaping to the defence of the medical profession. I doubt that Deer was suggesting that the majority of doctors are “cheats” – though that was how some attending the session interpreted his comments. Instead, I think he was raising an important point about the nature of clinical papers – that despite peer review, the academic process (particularly in clinical research) depends on trust and is open to abuse. And the extent of that abuse is difficult to gauge.