Sighs of relief from the whole editorial community were heard this weekend, following a ruling denying Pfizer accces to confidential peer-review documents from the NEJM.
Pfizer is facing a lawsuit over injuries believed to have come from use of their drug Celebrex. So, this January the drug company filed a motion asking for peer-review documents — including reviewers’ names and confidential comments — that might be relevant to the lawsuit and useful for its defense. (If you want to read all the details about the legal showdown between Pfizer and the NEJM, I would recommend that you read this excellent blog entry in “”http://pipeline.corante.com/“>In the Pipeline”.)
This past Friday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled that “it is not unreasonable to believe that compelling production of peer review documents would compromise the process”. And as Pfizer didn’t explained in sufficient detail what they expected to find in the confidential documents, the court decided that “whatever probative value the subpoenaed documents and information may have is outweighed by the burden and harm that would result” to the journals.
I was also delighted by the news, but I’m somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that the decision in favor the journals was shaped in no small measure by Pfizer’s inability to produce convincing-enough arguments. I wonder what would happen if a future motion makes a good case for what a company or any other party expects to find in our confidential information. Would the court then rule in favor of the company, setting a devastating precedent?
I must admit that my understanding of all the legal aspects that surround matters of this sort is very limited. But if journalists are protected from identifying their sources in court (what is often referred to as “privilege”), is that the same kind of protection that our “sources” — our referees — get when they share confidential information with us and when we promise to protect their anonymity? If this is not the case, why not? And is there something that we, the editors of scientific journals, could do to make sure that we have “privilege”?
The ruling favored us this time, setting some sort of precedent for the protection of confidential information at scientific journals, but the matter is far from closed, and heaven knows what will happen next time.