I blogged Wednesday that I thought I smelled politics in the JAMA article on fetal pain and suggested that the authors should have disclosed their political leanings as possible conflicts of interest. Yesterday the Chicago Tribune addressed the issue nicely (thanks to Kevin for directing us to the article).
The author information at the end of the paper says “Financial Disclosures: None reported.” Although no political leanings were disclosed to the JAMA readers one of the authors let her views slip in these comments to the New York Times: Dr. Eleanor A. Drey, one of Dr. Rosen's co-authors, said that as an obstetrician who sometimes performs abortions, she would find it troubling to be compelled to bring up the subject of fetal pain with her patients. "I would be forced to drag them through potentially a lot of misinformation," she said.
We’ve heard howls of indignation about conflict of interest in research until we’re numb, but the outrage has been selective, directed primarily at the financial influence of the pharmaceutical companies. Let’s not forget that political influence and advocacy are also forces that can have corrupting effects on scientific inquiry. Although the JAMA paper may not inform us about fetal pain it will have the beneficial unintended consequence of sparking discussion on an under appreciated form of conflict of interest.
It would be unreasonable to summarily reject a scientific paper based on source or affiliation, be it political or financial. However, disclosure of real or potential conflicts of interest is essential as it gives readers information they need for critical appraisal.