But, I do know that people are not always completely forthcoming with the truth. I know that backroom deals happen all of the time for the benefit of those involved and the details of these deals are rarely made public.
I am also acutely aware that money corrupts and that if one group gives a good amount of money to a second group that first group has significant power over the second. Money buys access, favors, and above all, leverage over the recipient.
When it comes to published science, money is very problematic. I don't think it is any secret that when research is sponsored by a company, it tends to be more favorable to that company than independent research. And then there are the (hopefully rare) cases when a company goes completely over the line and then we get ghost-written studies and entire journals that are fake.
But this is the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of. What happens is that you have a company that appears to have bought some research to improve its bottom line. The parties involved try and hide the details of the transaction but eventually they get caught and the affair is made public.
Hopefully at that point the parties are at least honest and admit to the affair (although I know that doesn't always happen) but the damage is done - our trust in the parties involved has been eroded. The conspiracy has been started and we start having to constantly ask ourselves what else "they" aren't telling us. And the next time that something gets published that involves these parties we have to ask ourselves if they are being completely honest with us.
Now, there are a few ways to deal with this problem. The best way is for researchers and scientific publications to not accept any money from companies who could have an interest in the results. But we all know that isn't going to happen.
A second way is to always be completely forthright about any financial arrangements between the researchers and publication and companies. This doesn't get rid of the conflict but it at least gets it out into the open and defuses the conspiracy aspect. But for this process the work, the disclosure has to be there from the start. It doesn't work if you only admit to it after the fact.
Having said all of that, I think that the major journals are well aware of this problem and go to great lengths to even avoid the appearance of impropriety. So imagine my shock when the BMJ was called out recently for failing to disclose a financial relationship with Merck in their recent pieces calling the ex-doctor Wakefield a fraud.
The problem is this. A group of, ahem, interested parties combed through the records of the BMJ and found that they had a substantial financial relationship with Merck. This group publicly called the BMJ on the lack of disclosure in the Wakefield articles, the journal responded with a resounding "whoops" -
Although Vera's claims may seem far fetched on this occasion, she is right that we should have declared the BMJ Group's income from Merck as a competing interest to the editorial (and the two editor's choice articles) that accompanied Brian Deer's series on the Secrets of the MMR scare.   We should also, as you say, have declared the group's income from GSK as a competing interest in relation to these articles. We will publish clarifications.
We didn't declare these competing interests because it didn't occur to us to do so. We saw this series not as pro-MMR vaccine or pro- vaccination in general, but as against fraud and corruption in medical research.Go read the entire response from the BMJ, it is quite interesting. The fact that an article about "corruption in medical research" failed to disclose a significant potential conflict of interest is ironic, to say the least.
There are at least two ways that you could look at this situation. The first is that the journal made an honest mistake and came clean when called on it. And if this were another situation, that would be exactly the way that I would look at this.
But in the case, the journal was already on shaky ground. Remember, this series of articles was commissioned and paid for by the journal. The journal went out and hired a journalist - not a scientist or researcher - and paid him to write these articles. And it wasn't just any journalist either - they hired Brian Deer who has made it his mission in life to hound Wakefield. More importantly, these articles weren't the typical peer-reviewed articles that a journal would be expected to publish. These articles were written with the explicit purpose of attacking a researcher and calling them a fraud.
Given all of this, I would have expected that the journal would have gone well out of their way to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. After all, if you are going to call out someone else's misbehavior, you had best not be guilty of the same.
But they didn't.
So then we are left with the facts that the journal commissioned a paid attack on a researcher and that the journal had undisclosed financial ties to companies that have a vested interest in seeing this line of inquiry shut down. And when you add in the idea that children are the victims of this potential collusion, what you are left with is a very powerful narrative.
I don't know whether the corporate sponsorship that the BMJ received in any way influenced the decision to commission and publish these articles on Wakefield. I want to think that it didn't, but the sad truth is that there is no way to know for certain if it did or didn't. The potential for bias is there and the journal dropped the ball and made it look like they were trying to pull a fast one.
A new conspiracy is born.