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Case #2

Interviews & Key figures

« The University of Zurich has an ethical obligation to retract these two articles »

The disclosure of the secret Annex to the contract between Philip Morris and the University of Zurich confirms that the study financed by the cigarette maker violated the principles of scientific research. What points have been criticised?

Bertrand Kiefer: The first point concerns good scientific practice, which was contravened by this study. Independent researchers demonstrated that the statistical methods employed were inadequate, and that the negative result was statistically predictable – in other words, a foregone conclusion.

Another important aspect concerns research project transparency, which was not respected. In fact, the essential part of the project description was concealed in an Annex to the contract, which amounts to unethical practice. 

The third main point concerns interference by Philip Morris in the research procedure, which is clearly apparent from the Annex to the contract. The cigarette company had extensive control over the procedure and could modify it to suit its own interests. This also represents a clear breach of scientific integrity.

How does the partnership between the University of Zurich and Philip Morris run counter to the fundamental values of the university and the rules for integrity issued by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences?

Point 2.2 of the Swiss Academies’ publication on “Integrity in scientific research” – the version issued in 2008, i.e. prior to this research – states that there is a need for “critical judgment and ethical reflection on the part of the individual researcher and the scientific community.” This was not the case in relation to this study, partly because the documents required for such critical judgment to be exercised were not available, but also because the results were never subjected to peer-review but merely posted on the University of Zurich website.

The Swiss Academies also underline the importance of researchers’ independence, a point not respected by this study. When research is funded by industry, there is a considerable risk of bias in the results. This phenomenon is, moreover, almost always observed with the tobacco industry: virtually no studies funded by this industry present results contrary to its own interests. In this particular case, the industry’s interests were of global proportions: the Zurich study was used to oppose the adoption of plain packaging in Australia and in a number of other countries contemplating this measure. The delayed implementation, or even prevention, on spurious grounds, of this measure for combatting tobacco use had immense consequences in terms of public health, serious illness and premature death. It is certainly not a trivial matter.

How should the University of Zurich respond today?

Now that it has been revealed that the study funded by Philip Morris violated the principles of scientific integrity, the University of Zurich has an ethical obligation to retract the two articles published on its website. It should also issue a statement announcing the retraction and acknowledging its failure to assume its responsibilities. That’s a real moral duty for the institution. 

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