Workshop looks at the enhancement of the scientific process and transparency of observational epidemiology studies

Environmental epidemiology studies are often treated with scepticism, even by the general public. In the past, scare stories based on findings from such studies, have turned out to be without foundation. There are many reasons for this, among them a pressure to have positive findings that can be published. This is compounded by the non-publication of negative findings and the difficulty to have such studies accepted for publication by high impact journals.

In view of these recurrent issues, ECETOC organised a workshop in London this 24-25 September at the Royal College of Physicians. Among the participants were leading experts from North America and Europe, from academia, government, science journals and industry.

The situation with such “observational studies' was compared with that which previously existed with clinical trials. In this case, it was shown that the trials showing a beneficial effect were more likely to be published than those which did not. One major step was the setting up of “clinical trials registries' which are open to the public and which provide a record of clinical trial designs and outcomes. These are supported by the editorial policies of key journals which only accept manuscripts if they were previously registered in these databases. In addition, the availability of the study protocol allows the results reported to be compared to the outcomes which were planned to be measured.

The workshop reached a consensus that it would be worthwhile to extend this approach to observational epidemiology studies. This approach was not considered to be a panacea, but would lead to improvements in the areas of ethics, transparency and universality (the availability of all data). As the existing databases hosted by the US NIH and the WHO were already suitable for this purpose, it was proposed that they be used, rather than starting a new system.