Background: An increasing proportion of spending by the pharmaceutical industry has gone to funding symposiums that are published by peer-reviewed medical journals. This study tests the hypothesis that such sponsorship, particularly by a single pharmaceutical company, is associated with a promotional orientation of the symposium and a distortion of the peer-review process.
Methods: We counted the symposiums published in 58 journals of clinical medicine and surveyed the journal editors regarding their policies for symposium issues. We analyzed the symposium issues that appeared in the 11 journals that published the most symposiums in order to determine the sponsor or sponsors, the topics, whether the titles were misleading, whether brand names were used, and whether the featured drugs were classified by the Food and Drug Administration as innovative or approved.
Results: The number of symposiums published per year increased steadily from 1966 through 1989. Forty-two percent of those analyzed (262 of 625) had a single pharmaceutical company as the sponsor. These symposiums were more likely than those with other sponsors to have misleading titles (P less than 0.001) and to use brand names (P less than 0.001), and less likely to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as other articles in the parent journal (P less than 0.001). Of the 161 symposiums that focused on a single drug, 51 percent concerned unapproved therapies; 14 percent concerned drugs classified as bringing important therapeutic gains.
Conclusions: Symposiums sponsored by drug companies often have promotional attributes and are not peer-reviewed. Financial relations among symposium participants, sponsors, and journals should be completely disclosed, symposiums should be clearly identified, and journal editors should maintain editorial control over contributions from symposiums.