Ensuring Ethical Animal Research: How do PLoS journals measure up?

Guest Blog by Janani Krishnaswami, PLoS Medicine Intern

Animal research enables advancement in disease management, and saving or prolonging the lives of patients.  However, potentially harming animals to improve human welfare can generate ethical disquiet in scientists and physicians who – through years of scientific education, volunteering and patient interactions – work daily to ease suffering.

The Lancet noted in a 2004 editorial that “animal research is an essential part of compassionate humanistic endeavour” ;  animal research will continue to advance medicine.  But – as animal welfare organizations and ethics committees concur – animal research can, and should, occur in an ethically sound and humane manner.  As an article in Nature pointed out:   “No responsible scientist wants to use animals or cause them unnecessary suffering if it can be avoided”

How can we achieve the goal of ethical and humane animal research? Various criteria have  previously been proposed, including:

  • The 3R’s -reduction, replacement, and refinement : humane alternatives used wherever possible, animal numbers and suffering reduced, and welfare improved
  • Animal housing and care follows good practice
  • Discomfort, distress and pain are minimized using appropriate anesthesia and analgesia
  • Humane endpoints are defined and implemented
  • Protocols involving animal use undergo ethical review
  • Investigators and all personnel who handle and use animals are appropriately trained and qualified
  • Euthanasia is carried out according to good practice

As UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) points out, medical journals’ publication policies can motivate ethical animal research.  Researchers seek publication of their findings; journals’ editorial policies guide their research methods. Specific policies calling for compliance with the criteria above – and requiring compliance for publication –thus foster humane animal treatment.

This concept prompted a survey recently published in the American Journal of Bioethics , in which authors Nicola Osborne, Daisy Payne and Michael Newman (RSPCA, Stanford University) reviewed the editorial policies of 288 peer-reviewed, English-language journals. They used 12 criteria to score the policies, including:
- Mentioning the use of animals in research and testing
- Referring the author to national or international guidelines, codes of conduct or legislation relating to research involving animals
- Making adherence to the policy a condition of publication
- Journals including statements requiring that authors comply with the guidelines on the ethical animal research (listed above)

Journals fared poorly. Nearly 50% had no relevant policies at all, receiving zero points, and only one journal attained the maximum score of 9 (out of a total possible 12).

But, the study did not evaluate PLoS journals. It was therefore suggested that I look at the information for authors of some of the PLoS journals and see how they compare. Application of the authors’ criteria to four PLoS journals including PLoS Medicine, produced somewhat discouraging results: a score of 2.

PLoS journals do have a clearly delineated policy on animal research, and refer authors to the Weatherall Report guidelines. But much of the low score stems from the brevity and vagueness of PLoS’ policies. For instance, PLoS policies broadly state that authors should include “steps taken to ameliorate suffering” and “details of animal welfare”, calling for authors to read and comply with an externally-linked (rather lengthy) report.
An enhanced policy might instead require authors to disclose specific items: animal housing conditions, practice of euthanasia, study protocol’s completion of external ethical review. Policies could further elaborate on broadly accepted principles of ethical treatment, such as the “three Rs” – reduction, replacement, and refinement. Finally, compliance with the policies should be clearly indicated as a requirement for publication.

As leaders in communication of scientific knowledge, PLoS journals receive several hundred submission inquiries every month. A clearer editorial policy can ensure that PLoS also emerge as leaders in promoting ethical animal research.

Comment from Ginny Barbour, Chief Editor PLoS Medicine.

The results from the PLoS journals’ instructions to authors are disappointing and reflect one particularly key issue in such policies: despite the best of intentions, and despite requiring authors to state in the paper that they comply with current regulations, without specific information in the instructions to authors it may not be possible to ensure that authors are adhering to best practices. We take animal welfare very seriously at the PLoS journals and will therefore be working to make our instructions much more specific and thus enforceable.

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