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Commentary

New England Journal of Politics
Wall Street Journal, 1-16-06

The Journal takes issue with the New England Journal of Medicine for its Merck-bashing editorial last month.
Accusations aren't the usual fare of august medical journals, so it's worth trying to understand the publication's self-insertion into the Merck litigation. Its extraordinary decision to publish a critical statement about a Vioxx study it ran years ago is being hailed by trial lawyers as the best evidence yet that Merck played fast and loose with its data. Another way to say this is that the New England Journal is joining the ranks of academic publications risking their reputations as non-partisan arbiters of good science in order to rumble in the political tarpits.
Any journal has an obligation to demand honest studies. Yet the facts of this case suggest that is exactly what it got. In November 2000 the journal published a Vioxx study funded by Merck, which was ostensibly looking for gastrointestinal problems. In the course of the study, the researchers also discovered that participants showed a somewhat higher risk of heart attack from taking Vioxx as compared to another widely used painkiller, naxopren -- a fact they included in the published results.
What has [Dr. Curfman, the executive editor] in a dither is the fact that three more participants also suffered heart attacks -- though only after the cutoff date that had been determined by an outside safety panel for the study. The three heart incidents were included in an early draft of the paper, but they had disappeared by the time it went to press. The not-so-subtle accusation is that Merck manipulated the data.
In fact, as prominent scientists have since attested, the authors were simply following the rules of science. "If the outcomes truly occurred after the close of the study, then they don't belong in the study," Brian Strom, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Nature magazine.

The same journal standards should apply to academic and industry researchers. In the meantime, if Merck flounders under a wave of lawsuits, the NEJM can take some of the credit.



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