Essay: Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science—and society
Discovery documents uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health, and the very foundation of democracy, at risk.
While passing a placard of contemporary protest buttons in New York's Greenwich Village, my attention was drawn to one that read "Science is Peer Reviewed, Not Politician Approved."
This short aphorism brought into focus two unfortunate realities. First, there are growing segments of the population who have lost confidence in science and choose to act on un-scientific or pseudo-scientific truth claims. And second, other segments of the population view scientists as just another stakeholder group subject to the same market influences in the competition for producing credible knowledge.
As a generator of truth claims, science stands on its own footing. Unfortunately, many corporations view science not as a generator of truth, but as one of many inputs into production.
The most recent examples of the corporate capture of science can be found in the investigations of discovery documents, released under court mandate, arising from mass tort product liability litigation filed against Monsanto Co. Thousands of people have filed lawsuits claiming they developed cancer after exposure to the company's Roundup herbicide, and that the company suppressed information about the toxic effects of Roundup.
Thousands of pages of these discovery documents – made up largely of internal Monsanto communications - were analyzed in two peer-reviewed publications. My co-author Carey Gillam and I published our results in the Journal of Public Health Policy. Leemon McHenry, a member of the Philosophy Department at California State University, published his assessment in the International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine.
Gillam and I found three major trends illustrating one corporation's view of science, scholarly journals, and environmental regulatory agencies.
Our first finding showed that when the scientific literature did not yield the results Monsanto desired, the company talked internally about writing its own journal articles and paying outside scientists to list their names on the documents when they were sent for publication.
The procedure is called "ghostwriting" to signify that the name of the person actually writing the study does not appear in the published article. What is evident from the internal documents is that "ghostwriting," largely disavowed by respected journals as a form of plagiarism, appears as a normal business practice for Monsanto.
Papers showing ghostwriting practices, and/or referred to as having been ghostwritten in internal Monsanto documents, were published in peer-reviewed journals and concluded that there were no health concerns associated with Monsanto's herbicide.
We found evidence that while the papers were presented as independent – indeed, in at least one case, a series of papers were titled as "independent" – Monsanto employees were involved in writing, drafting and determining conclusions.
A second finding shared in our article is that the company used all of its influence to pressure a journal editor to retract a paper, against the wishes of its authors, that drew results Monsanto found disagreeable. The internal documents describe Monsanto employee efforts to engage with the journal, making it clear that they do not want their role to be known.
Initially, one journal editor followed good publishing practices by supporting a scientific debate over the paper's methods and results in the pages of the journal. After the journal appointed a former employee of Monsanto on its editorial board, the paper was retracted.
The editor-in-chief wrote in the retraction statement that he found "no evidence of fraud of intentional misrepresentation of the data," …the results were not incorrect," and there was no misconduct. He retracted the paper because he found the results to be "inconclusive."
The third illustration of corporate malfeasance was Monsanto's effort to exercise influence over the Environmental Protection Agency to persuade another agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a toxicological arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, from carrying out its own assessment of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.
We also learned that journals who learned from the disclosure documents that they published ghosted papers took no action against the authors, allowing the plagiarized papers to remain in the archival literature, even despite formal requests for clarifications or retractions in at least one case.
"Our society must support firewalls"
McHenry's paper expands on the ghostwriting findings by describing a Monsanto drafted paper for Forbes Magazine, with Henry Miller as author.
The paper, titled "March Madness from the United Nations," disputed findings from the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC). In 2015 the IARC found that the active ingredient in Roundup and many other herbicides—glyphosate—is a probable human carcinogen and has been associated with cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
When Forbes learned about the ghostwriting, it had the good sense of removing the paper.
Another of McHenry's findings from the discovery documents shows how Monsanto has blurred the sector boundaries of a private corporation and a public university. Monsanto supported a website at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champagne to enable two so-called "independent" faculty to do its bidding in criticizing the IARC's cancer review.
The documents show that Monsanto wished to be a silent partner in this venture so as not to discredit the reviews.
McHenry shows us the efforts taken by Monsanto to exercise control over the "scientific" message about its chemical herbicide. He sums up the corporate mindset: "On one hand, [Monsanto] represents itself publicly as a vigorous champion of science against myths, fanaticism, emotion, politics and any failure to consider the total weight of evidence and, on the other, it privately seeks to protect itself against possible refutation by secretly controlling the scientific process…"
To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles.
Perhaps the protest button should read: "Science is Peer Reviewed, Not Corporate Imbued."
Sheldon Krimsky is a Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy & Community Medicine at Tufts University.