Are ad trackers a conflicting interest for medical journals?

The researchers identified 1605 journals with an impact factor greater than 2. An impact factor is also an advertising metric – it tells you how often articles were cited in a specific journal. [1]. These numbers change annually. They then went to the journal’s home page and identified

  • Data requests from third parties – who provide these parties with information about the computer used
  • Third-party cookies – data left on the computer that enables web tracking

They found that 99% of the homepages of these journals had requests for third-party data, not just a few, a median of 31. For those looking for comfort, these higher-impact journals like NEJM or JAMA, or The Lancet, held itself to a higher standard with fewer data requests, just 19.

Only 77% of the reviews left behind these cookies meant more like third-party processing than anything to us. The median number of cookies was 8, and impact factor had no role here.

Who were the big thirds? The best weren’t Big Pharma; they were social media and data aggregators (Google, Oracle and Adobe). They then sell this information to their subscribers. All five sell to Big Pharma.

Who wins ?

Newspapers, I’m sure, would be the first to tell you that these trackers help their subscribers. After all, wouldn’t you want to be reminded of a new treatment option after reading the results of a clinical trial? Doctors are busy; it is only a value-added service.

Reviews might also mention that it improves their bottom line – they’re not charities; They have one profit margin 28-39% on every revenue dollar, at least in 2011. It undoubtedly enables targeted advertising by pharmaceutical and device companies, giving them more for their money.

Suppose ProPublica and other organizations are correct that the mere hint of publicity and a free meal can dramatically alter prescriptions written by doctors. Shouldn’t we care just as much, if not more, about these trackers? Is it time to make medical journals safe spaces – with no means of monetizing, for others, our interests and concerns?

[1] The impact factor is the number of citations received in the current year for papers published in the previous two years divided by the number of papers published in the same two years.

Source: Prevalence of third-party tracking on medical journal websites JAMA Health Forum DOI: 10.1001/jamahealthforum.2022.0167