Scientists continue to be the targets of legal action from pharmaceutical, medical device, and nutraceutical companies when published studies frame these companies’ products in an unfavorable light, according to a paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers who publish trial results that show no effect or negative impacts of medical products are at risk of receiving backlash from executives of companies selling these products. This backlash can often be in the form of an editorial or a company-published rebuttal. In some cases, company executives may pursue legal action against study investigators in an effort to reduce the likelihood of future trials.

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Pieter Cohen, MD, of Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School, and colleagues argue that the main goal of these companies is not always to win the case or even go to trial. The ultimate goal is to intimidate the scientists to prevent further studies. Unnecessary lawsuits can also produce significant legal costs and distract investigators from focusing their resources and time on research that is integral to scientific and medical advancement.

These lawsuits discourage the critical evaluation of data from contrary points of view. This is an important part of the scientific process, as it facilitates additional hypotheses that can be tested, presenting the potential to discover more effective strategies for patient care.

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In the event that errors have been made in the representation or interpretation of data, it is suggested that the appropriate universities or centers be contacted so that there can be an investigation rather than a lawsuit.

Additionally, courts may play a role in reducing lawsuits by taking an actionable role in considering “sanctioning attorneys who are unethical enough to represent clients whose only goal is to discourage science.”


Bagley N, Carroll AE, Cohen PA. Scientific trials-in the laboratories, not the courts [published online November 6, 2017]. JAMA Intern Med. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.5730