Science

Two small steps forward in the fight for open medical data

In his recent TEDTalk, “What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe,” Ben Goldacre sounded a warning about the vast numbers of pharmaceutical studies that go unpublished. “Positive findings are about twice as likely to be published as negative findings,” said Goldacre, noting that this is a big problem because it means doctors are prescribing pharmaceuticals without full knowledge of their side effects and overall efficacy.

However, Goldacre is excited about a hint of change displayed in this article from the British Medical Journal. In the editorial, BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee tips her hat to pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline for opening its vaults and allowing access to its trial data. The system is not perfect — all requests must travel through a panel and be deemed “a reasonable scientific question” before data will be released — but it is a step forward. At the same time, Godlee pledges that, beginning in January 2013, the journal will only publish studies on drugs and medical devices when there is a commitment to make all data available upon request. Meanwhile, she writes that the publication is continuing its three-year battle to gain access to all the data existing for the drug Tamiflu.

This, of course, does not mean that the problem is solved. But it is a sign that a sea change may soon be under way in the area of medical data.