Barinaga, Marcia, "Who Controls a Researcher's Files?" Science 256 (19 June 1992), pp. 1620-

 

Barinaga, Marcia, "Who Controls a Researcher's Files?" Science 256 (19 June 1992), pp. 1620-
1621.

For years the rules of research called for a disclosure of results but not of raw data or other
"personal" documents. That seems to be changing as courts provide access to a researchers files,
even personal materials which may, or may not have contributed to the decision to do a particular
study. The case in point concerns smoking and the researchers did a study of children's reaction
to the cartoon character "Old Joe Camel." R. J. Reynolds did not like the research which showed
that children identified the chanracter with cigarettes.

R. J. Reynolds had distributed the cartoon character on T-shirts, mugs and other items without
including the warning required on cigarettes of the Surgeon General. That ad campaign resulted
in a law suit in San Francisco and the evidence presented including the researchers's finding that
children easily associated the cartoon with Camel cigarettes and did so at very early ages.
Moreover, the character seemed to have an effect on which brand of cigarettes adolescents
smoked.

Renolds wanted the original data to determine if the researchers were guilty of bias and fraud in
the studies they published in JAMA on 11 December 1991) [266, 3145; 3149; and 3154]. The
teams of researchers who did the study were headed by, P. M. Fisher (Medical College of
Georgia), J. R. DiFranza (family physician in Fitchburg, Massachusetts) and J. P. Pierce
(University of California, San Diego). There are legal battles aplenty here as courts must decide
such issues as whether state or federal laws take precedence in matters such as advertising.

A Massachusetts court ruled that DiFranza had to turn over documents to the Reynolds company
and, when he did, the company promptly made the documents available to the press. Now all of
the participants in these studies were promised anonymity but, no matter, Reynolds has the right
to seek to protect itself, it needs to understand the research.

Indeed, Reynolds thinks it has obtained evidence indicating bias against the company in some
letters Joseph DiFranza wrote to collegeues: "I have an idea for a project that will give us a
couple of smoking guns to bring to the national media." Moreover, the company contends that
the questions were asked of the children in a biased manner and that DiFranza distorted his study
by not publishing results which did not go along with his conclusions. DiFranza does not
disagree that he started out with a viewpoint: every scientist does. He is quoted, "It is very easy to
confuse non-scientists about how scientific investigations work. (p. 1621)

Interestingly, Reynolds has not done any studies of children under 18 because "they cannot
legally purchase the product." Besides, it is reported that the company has plenty of evidence that
ads do not influence the smoking habits of children.

The threat of this kind of intimidating investigation is serious indeed. Researchers have no
protection in their doing research on sensitive topics. The courts can intrude in the research
process. Everyone has a hunting license to investigate data they don't like.

Then too, the courts came very close to allowing Reynolds to have access to the names of the
studies' participants and, while they did not get that access in this case, in the next ones they
might. That could have a chilling effect of all sorts of research.

There will undoubtedly be much more on this topic.