New browser app shines light on conflicts of interest

By: Christine Baugh

A new Google Chrome extension puts the spotlight on conflicts of interest. The browser app, available for free download here, was created at the Hacking iCorruption hackathon event held March 27-29 in Cambridge, MA. The event, co-sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the MIT Center for Civic Media (hosted at the MIT Media Lab) brought together individuals with a variety of backgrounds and skills to work toward the common mission of fighting institutional corruption, in this case by creating practical tools. This project was one of several exciting tools created at the hackathon (information about other projects available here), and it won first prize among the projects.

The Chrome extension, called Unearth, puts funding and conflict of interest information on the abstract page of PubMed research articles. Christopher Robertson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Arizona James E. Rodgers College of Law and Edmond J. Safra Center Fellow who was a member of the Unearth team, explains the rationale for the browser extension in this Youtube video. In short, conflict of interest and funding disclosures are often placed at the end of a research article and are generally unavailable on the abstract page. This makes it impractical for physicians and other research scientists to pay appropriate attention to this important information. Research from the Cochrane Collaboration has demonstrated that research studies funded by industry generally describe “greater benefits and fewer harmful side effects” than their non-industry funded counterparts. Thus, taking the source of research funding into account when reading a new research study is critical. Although the extension currently only works for open access articles from PubMed Central, this includes several million research articles for which funding and conflict of interest information was previously much more difficult to obtain. Additionally, the developers plan on expanding the breadth of coverage in the coming weeks.

When asked about the motivation for and functionality of Unearth, Christopher Robertson one of the co-creators replied, “We designed this extension to work in the background, once installed.  Physicians can continue going to PubMed, which they know and trust.  Our tool just enhances that experience.  As of now, it works for the several million articles that have full text in PubMedCentral.  In the coming months, we will be working to expand its coverage, to all of biomedical science, and then to all of science.  We are actively seeking volunteer coders!”

Congratulations to Christopher Robertson, Alexandra Horeanopoulos, Alisa Nguyen, Avery Dao, Alex Chen, Diana Nguyen, Marco Gentili, and Steven Cooke for the creation of this important tool that puts a needed spotlight on conflicts of interest in scientific research.

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2 thoughts on “New browser app shines light on conflicts of interest

  1. “.. expand its coverage, to all of biomedical science …” Interesting development. However, looking at how (US or European) politicians change employers between e.g. public service and advisory or leading management roles in industry, often in fields they used to regulate (similar things can be found in the financial services industry and its regulators) we should have another layer of caution: investigating the resumes/CVs of authors to see who has been working where in previous “incarnations”. I have an inkling that what the Cochrane initiative found out about “leniency” traced back to researchers directly working for certain industrial interests might also work “favorably” for the same “powers that be” if the same person now works in academe but had been affiliated with industry OR plans the transition in the foreseeable future. If politicians’ examples are any guide, we might see similar developments in esp. pharmaceutical research too.

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