Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 27, 2005

Lilly Story Retracted, Medical Journalistic Ethics

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:18 pm

Bogus articles based on anonymous sources are common; apologies for such stories less so.

In its January 1, 2005 issue, the British Medical Journal published an article claiming that Eli Lilly & Co. withheld 52 pages of documents from a trial court relating to possible links between the antidepressant drug Prozac and violent and suicidal behavior. The documents came to the BMJ from an “anonymous source,” and the BMJ promptly handed them over to the FDA and to a congressman, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) — an outspoken advocate of proposals to require drug companies to publish results of all clinical trials. Indeed, Rep. Hinchey was quoted in the BMJ article as saying, “This case demonstrates the need for Congress to mandate the complete disclosure of all clinical studies for FDA-approved drugs so that patients and their doctors, not the drug companies, decide whether the benefits of taking a certain medicine outweigh the risks.”

Lilly denied that they had withheld anything, and publicly criticized the BMJ for refusing to show Lilly the documents it claimed Lilly should have disclosed (does that even make sense?). When they finally found what what documents the BMJ was talking about — not from the BMJ, but from Rep. Hinchey — they were able to provide a detailed chronology of their communications with the FDA showing that Lilly had not, in fact, withheld the information in question.

The Indianapolis Star reported yesterday that the BMJ has retracted the story and posted an apology on their web site.

I saw that article, and went to the BMJ web site to read the retraction. Trouble is, I couldn’t find any retraction or apology anywhere. I had no problem finding the original article, or the article reporting that Lilly denied the charges, but the retraction/apology was nowhere to be found. The “current headlines” included the article reporting the Lilly defense, but not the retraction/apology. I even searched on “Lilly” in the search box on the web site, and came up with lots of articles about Lilly, but no retraction or apology.

I was beginning to wonder if they’d posted the retraction just long enough to take credit for it, then taken it down to avoid embarrassment and/or encourage people to believe the original. I finally found the retraction here, linked from this news story on the website of my local news radio station. (I later found the URL in a press release on Lilly’s web site also.)

I should not have had to go to such lengths to find the correction, and if the BMJ really intended for the correction to be noticed, I wouldn’t have had to. The correction should be prominently linked, with at least a one-sentence summary if not more, on their home page. It should be accessible through their search feature. And, in the age of the Internet, it is inexcusable not to include the correction on the web version of the original article. This doesn’t require reprinting the journal and sending it out to thousands of libraries (though they really ought to send errata stickers); it just requires a few minutes at a keyboard putting in a box that says “This article has been retracted” with a link to the correction on the web version of the article.

It is bad enough that Lilly had to spend time tracking down the documents and money for ads in 12 major newspapers to refute the original story. They should not have to do it again to publicize the retraction. The BMJ publicized the bogus story, and they should publicize the retraction.

In the Internet age, there is still time for the BMJ to fix this. Let’s see if they do.

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