25 Oct, 13 | by Iain Brassington
So…if a cure for lung cancer is found, and the study has been funded through money from a tobacco company…the BMJ won’t publish said study?
Way to go BMJ.
Hmmm. At least on the face of it, this looks like an important point – one that deserves a bit of unpacking. We can begin by distinguishing between responses to this particular point, and responses to the general idea behind it. First things first.
I’m willing to bite the bullet and admit without worrying too much that the policy of not accepting papers funded by the tobacco industry may mean that some research is not publicised. There’s a small handful of reasons why I’m willing to do that. One of them – admittedly the weakest of the lot – is based on the idea that it’s not wholly clear that much tobacco money really is directed at finding a cure for lung cancer, rather than firefighting other research about the detrimental properties of tobacco. But that, as I say, is weak, based on suspicion rather than anything enormously substantial; and even if the hunch is correct, it’s merely empirical rather than anything conceptual. Still, even if the hunch is wrong, it shouldn’t matter, because there’re stronger reasons.
One is based around the idea that there’s a special providence in the fall of a pipette – or, put another way, you can’t keep a good truth down. If something is there to be discovered and is worth the effort, then it’ll be discovered sooner or later; if not by Smith, then by Jones. And, because scientific progress is invariably a matter of the accretion of the work of several teams, all working independently and making minor discoveries, rather than one heroic person who would be solely responsible for The Cure For Cancer ™, the loss of one paper here and there probably won’t make all that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. If that’s correct, then the idea that we might lose the cure for cancer is not all that compelling – not one about which we should worry too much.
A final reason is that, as I’ve said before elsewhere, I’m not persuaded that research is obligatory: it’s admirable, but not required by duty. There’s a range of second-order arguments one might present here, but most relevant has to do with the benefits that research might generate. more…