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WHO calls on scientists to stop withholding results of clinical trials

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'Powerful and welcome' statement targets bad science

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a statement demanding more transparency in scientists' reporting of clinical trials. The statement updates and expands the WHO's position, adding specific timelines for scientists to register the outcome and methods of clinical trials. In an accompanying commentary, science writer and open science advocate Ben Goldacre said that the WHO's decision was "powerful and welcome" and that it "represents important progress on a long-standing and global structural problem."

withholding study data hurts patients

"The best currently available evidence shows that the methods and results of clinical trials are routinely withheld from doctors, researchers, and patients, undermining our best efforts at informed decision making," writes Goldacre in PLOS. Recent studies have shown that even the US Food and Drug Administration routinely buries details of scientific misconduct, failing to alert the public or even the medical community about evidence of botched trials and bad data.

A spokesperson for the WHO told The Verge that the timing of the statement had nothing to do with these particular findings, but that there was simply "compelling evidence that trial results reporting is a problem." They added that the WHO's previous statement on the need to register scientific trials had been issued in 2005, and that this updated statement had been "in the offing" for a while.

"doctors and patients of the future may well look back on this with amazement."

The WHO's statement not only calls for future trials to be submitted to a scientific journal within 12 months, but for retrospective audits of old studies. As Goldacre points out, this is especially important given the slow pace at which research becomes medicine. "The overwhelming majority of prescriptions today are for treatments that came onto the market — and were therefore researched — over the preceding decades rather than the past five years," says Goldacre. He adds that "doctors and patients of the future may well look back on [the withholding of study data] with amazement, much as we look back on medieval bloodletting."