Litigation-Driven Research: Getting Over the Ick Factor
Recently I wrote that "plaintiff-sponsored research is disturbing and represents a potentially significant conflict of interest for the investigator who accepts plaintiff funds to perform related studies—particularly studies that may be used to the advantage of the plaintiff in ongoing litigation." This statement was in response to a recent court opinion that dismissed the plaintiff-funded study of Bremner et al, who attempted to associate altered brain metabolism with Accutane exposure. The study was published in a 2005 issue of the peer-reviewed American Journal of Psychiatry, which acknowledged the study's funding source.
The reflexive "ick" to plaintiff-sponsored research or, more broadly, litigation-driven research is undoubtedly related to the fact that the outcome is intended to support one side of an argument. This inherent bias in litigation-driven research is, therefore, completely contrary to the fundamental tenet of scientific endeavor, which is to investigate the universe with as much objectivity as possible.
By comparison, there is generally less disgust when considering industry-funded, and in particular, pharma-funded, research—although agendas certainly exist among the financial supporters of these clinical studies. The reasons for the relative ease with which we accept pharma-funded research, despite the fact that these studies are designed and performed to sell prescription drugs, are threefold: 1) there is a longtime precedent of reviewing and accepting pharma-funded research; 2) the intended outcome of pharma-funded research is less overt than that of litigation-driven research; and 3) the drug industry is government regulated. Specifically much of the clinical research supported by pharma, including raw data, is subject to the scrutiny of FDA officials (which is why reasons 1 and 2 exist, for the most part).
But law professor William Childs, in a 2006 paper, argues that litigation-driven research should not be dismissed out of hand by the scientific community. Moreover, litigation-driven research may add importantly to the foundation of science by funding studies that would not have been performed otherwise. And the validity of litigation-driven research, especially if it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, will likely be subjected to a lengthy Daubert hearing—which is used by many courts to determine the admissibility of expert testimony.
This legal scrutiny of scientific research, Childs argues, goes beyond peer review*—the parameters of which are limited and vary widely from journal to journal—to examine researchers' methodologies and, importantly, their raw data. For instance, in the case of Bremner's Accutane-PET study, a lengthy pretrial court hearing revealed that the authors did not follow their methodology as described, and that there were outcome-altering errors in data entry. Without the hearing and the resulting court opinion, these shortcomings of the peer-reviewed study would not have been known.
It therefore goes to reason that researchers who perform litigation-funded research, knowing that their research will likely be subjected to cross-examining attorneys and the scrutiny of opposing expert witnesses, should be sufficiently motivated to perform their research with irreproachable standards. These standards should certainly include avoiding dishonesty or the appearance of it.
Childs writes that, while "it is highly unusual for a party's retained expert to testify contrary to the party's litigation position,"** checks exist to ensure the integrity of litigation-driven research through the possibility of subpoenas and depositions and any consequent risk to a researcher's reputation—"the coin of the realm in academia."
* In fact, Daubert hearings reveal the shortcomings of peer review to reliably ferret out scientific fraud.
** And the plaintiffs' retention of an expert "is dependent on whether the results support the plaintiffs' argument." Recently Bremner emphasized that he was retained as an expert witness by the Accutane litigation plaintiffs after the PET study was completed--which means that his retention as an expert witness by the plaintiffs was dependent on the results of his study.
Image of vintage Pepto-Bismol ad from Flickr.