Disappearing Conflicts of Interest

As the story of who funded the opposition research into Trumski and the Russian micturaters unfolds, both sides of the political spectrum seem obsessed with who funded the research. Funny thing that both sides had coins in the fountain. Funding is, in any event, an invalid proxy for good and sufficient reason. The public should be focused on the truth or falsity of the factual claims. The same goes in science, although more and more, science is evaluated by “conflicts of interest” (COIs) rather than by the strength of evidence and validity of inferences.

No one screams louder today about COIs than the lawsuit industry and its scientist fellow travelers. Although I believe we should rid ourselves of this obsession with COIs, to the extent we must put up with it, the obsession should at least be symmetrical, complete, and non-hypocritical.

In an in-press publication, Morris Greenberg has published an historical account of the role that the U.K. Medical Research Council had in studying asbestos health effects.1 Greenberg often weighs in on occupational disease issues in synch with the litigation industry, and so no one will be entirely surprised that Greenberg suspects undue industry influence (not the lawsuit industry, but an industry that actually makes things). Greenberg may be right in his historical narrative and analysis, but my point today is different. What was interesting about Greenberg’s paper was the disclosure at its conclusion, by the “American Journal of Industrial Medicine editor of record”:

Steven B. Markowitz declares that he has no conflict of interest in the review and publication decision regarding this article.”

Markowitz’s declaration is remarkable in the era when the litigation industry and its scientific allies perpetually have their knickers knotted over perceived COIs. Well known to the asbestos bar, Markowitz has testified with some regularity for plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients. Markowitz is also an editor in chief of the “red” journal,” the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Many of the associate editors are regular testifiers for the lawsuit industry, such as Arthur L. Frank and Richard A. Lemen.

Even more curious is that Steven Markowitz, along with fellow plaintiffs’ expert witness, Jacqueline M. Moline, recently published a case report about mesothelioma occuring in an unusual exposure situation, in the red journal. This paper appeared online in February 2017, and carried a disclosure that “[t]he authors have served as expert witnesses in cases involving asbestos tort litigation.2” A bit misleading given how both appear virtually exclusively for claimants, but still a disclosure, whereas Markowitz, qua editor of Greenberg’s article, claimed to have none.

Markowitz, as an alumnus of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is, of course, a member of the secret handshake society of the litigation industry, the Collegium Ramazzini. At the Collegium, Markowitz proudly presents his labor union consultancies, but these union ties are not disclosed in Markowitz’s asbestos publications.

Previously, I blogged about Markowitz’s failure to make an appropriate COI disclosure in connection with an earlier asbestos paper.3 See Conflicts of Interest in Asbestos Studies – the Plaintiffs’ Double Standard” (Sept. 18, 2013). At the time, there appeared to be no disclosure of litigation work, but I was encouraged to see, upon checking today, that Markowitz’s disclosure for his 2013 paper now reveals that he has received fees for expert testimony, from “various law firms.” A bit thin to leave out plaintiffs’ law firms, considering that the paper at issue is used regularly by Markowitz and other plaintiffs’ expert witnesses to advance their positions in asbestos cases. A more complete disclosure might read something like: “Markowitz has been paid to consult and testify in asbestos personal injury by plaintiffs’ legal counsel, and to consult for labor unions. In his testimony and consultations, he relies upon this paper and other evidence to support his opinions. This study has grown out of research that was originally funded by the asbestos workers’ union.”

Or we could just evaluate the study on its merits, or lack thereof.


1 Morris Greenberg, “Experimental asbestos studies in the UK: 1912-1950,” 60 Am. J. Indus. Med. XXX (2017) (doi: 10.1002/ajim.22762).

2 Steven B. Markowitz & Jacqueline M. Moline, “Malignant Mesothelioma Due to Asbestos Exposure in Dental Tape,” 60 Am. J. Indus. Med. 437 (2017).

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