Should Peer Review be confidential?

Donald Kennedy, the edior-in-chief of Science, yesterday wrote an editorial about a legal dispute between the New England Journal of Medicine and the drug company Pfizer. Pfizer wants the NEJM to provide the reviewer comments on submitted papers about the two Pfizer products celecoxib (Celebrex) and valdecoxib (Bextra). Both drugs are used to treat pain and belong to the COX-2 inhibitor class of drugs. Rofecoxib (Vioxx) is another COX-2 inhibitor produced by Merck. Rofecoxib and valdecoxib, but not celecoxib were withdrawn from the market about three years ago because of an increased risk of cardiovascular side effects, including heart attacks.

Research findings about cardiovascular side effects of COX-2 inhibitors are at the center of the dispute and Pfizer is now seeking arguments for their case not just from published papers but also in confidential peer reviews and manuscripts that were rejected. This legal dispute is important because it touches central aspects of the peer review process.

The findings of scientific papers can have consequences not only to the scientific community involved, but also for the personal fortunes of their authors (e.g. new jobs or grants), the treatment of patients, our policies towards climate change – or the profit of a drug company. With that much at stake, the temptation to move the scientific argument from the editorial office to the courtroom is there. We should resist this temptation, or the peer review process and the way we communicate science will never be the same again.

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7 Responses to Should Peer Review be confidential?

  1. Martin Fenner says:

    Nature News this week has an “article”:http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080305/full/452006a.html on this issue, including more detailed background information.

  2. Maxine Clarke says:

    There is a typo in the post – editor in chief, first line (sorry, it is second nature).
    I think that peer-review comments should be sacrosant to the journal.

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    An update on this issue can be found on “In the Pipeline”:http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2008/03/13/pfizer_vs_the_nejm_a_legal_showdown.php. Apparently we will soon see legal action in this issue.

  4. Martin Fenner says:

    Pfizer is in a legal dispute with the journal “JAMA”:http://jama.ama-assn.org/ in a similar case. According to this “ScienceNOW story”:http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2008/314/1, a court in Chicago last week denied Pfizer access to the peer review documents.

  5. Martin Fenner says:

    The New England Journal of Medicine has won the legal dispute against Pfizer according to “this”:http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2008/401/1 article.

  6. Maxine Clarke says:

    My From the Blogosphere column in tomorrow’s Nature features this, via a Nature news story and some comments from Juan Carlos Lopez on “Spoonful of Medicine blog”:http://blogs.nature.com/nm/spoonful/2008/03/bullet_dodged_for_now.html — JC is pleased but concerned at the court’s reason for the decision, but Alan in the comments is more sanguine.

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    There were two separate court decisions, one for JAMA in March and now the one for the NEJM. I think that the court’s arguments are reasonable. I’m not completely against handing over material from the peer-review process, but there must be a very strong reason to do it and the material must be specified.