Letter: Cancer research and the right to publish

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Sir: Your unbalanced coverage of the Charity Commission's inquiry into the funding of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre study (report and leading article, 7 January) leads me to wonder whether the accusation of 'bloody-mindedness' should be laid at your door rather than ours.

Let's be quite clear about the Commission's main points, which are that it felt supervision of the researchers by the funding bodies had been inadequate, and it believed we should have vetted the research results before publication.

On the first point, it appears to us that the Commission mainly wants us to make it a formal part of any contract that supervision is delegated to the institute employing the grant-holder. We have no problem with making this internationally accepted unwritten rule more formal. As many readers will know, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund is itself a research institute, where the overwhelming majority of work is carried out by our own employees. We certainly accept responsibility for supervising them. None of the researchers involved in the Bristol study was an employee of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund or the Cancer Research Campaign, who co- funded the study with us.

The second point raises more serious issues. There is a long tradition that researchers have the right to publish their results. It should be remembered that many grants are given to independent researchers by organisations with a commercial or political interest. This makes the right of researchers to publish their findings, whatever they may be, an important safeguard.

As a research institute in its own right, the ICRF has in place a system for internal monitoring before research papers produced by our own staff are submitted for publication. But for reports by grant- holders we follow the normal rule, which is to rely on evaluation carried out by independent peer reviewers of specialist medical and scientific journals.

Your accusation that we have been bloody-minded in being slow to correct the mistake is devastating. And your suggestion that 'the scientific establishment' has been trying to cover up its failures is not only wrong but insulting. The Charity Commission's findings note that the ICRF did evaluate the results quickly after publication, and that Sir Walter Bodmer wrote to the Lancet stating that 'our own evaluation is that the study's results can be explained by the fact that women going to Bristol had more severe disease than control women'. This letter, incidentally, was published on the day that the Bristol Centre had planned a press conference, and it was able to make use of it there.

You also suggest that we should offer a full retraction and apology. The fact is that the paper is not ours to withdraw - it is the property of the researchers. And in our 6 January statement we again expressed regret for the distress caused to the patients involved.

The present, long-established way of handling medical research has served the public very well, and led to many advances in prevention and treatment. It is to be hoped these arrangements will not be placed in jeopardy by the singular sad events surrounding the Bristol study.

I hope, too, that we may look forward to an even-handed discussion of the important principles involved in future coverage by the Independent.

Yours sincerely,

NICHOLAS WRIGHT

Director of Clinical Research

Imperial Cancer Research Fund

London, WC2

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