The Center for Knowledge Management at the University of California San Francisco wants to expand its Drug Industry Document Archive, an online storehouse for pharmaceutical industry documents.  When the Prescription Project, which supports increased disclosure of pharma-related info, got wind of the possible archive expansion, we wanted to find out more.

PostScript talked with Kim Klausner, who manages the Legacy Tobacco Digital Library at UCSF and is looking to expand DIDA.  She said the idea for DIDA grew out of the Legacy Tobacco Digital Library, a rich repository of documents turned over by the tobacco industry during its settlement with state Attorneys General in the late 1990s.

The Legacy library, which contains more than 40 million pages of corporate and court documents from the tobacco settlements, has proved a valuable asset to investigators, reporters, attorneys and public advocates as they continue to expose tobacco industry misdeeds against public health and trust. 

Established with help from a charitable gift in 2005, DIDA currently includes some 1,000 searchable documents, primarily court materials from the 2004 Neurontin case, in which a division of Warner-Lambert (now Pfizer) settled with the U.S. government for $430 million on charges of illegal marketing for off-label use.  The archive also contains documents related to Merck and the Vioxx suits. 

In a post-Vioxx world, many like Klausner believe that internal documents from pharmaceutical companies and the court cases brought against them could be of commensurate value to those interested in increasing drug safety and opening Big Pharma’s playbook to the public. 

PS: Do you think there are historical moments when archives such as the ones at DIDA are more necessary than others? What characterizes such a moment? Is this one of them?

KK: Since the mid-19th century, when national corporations started to develop, muckraking journalists, Congressional committees, and advocacy groups have tried to obtain information about corporate misdeeds in a variety of ways. But it was the confluence of two factors that exponentially increased the public’s ability to discover how an industry contributes to the degradation of the public’s health.  In 1998 the tobacco industry, in order to settle lawsuits by 26 state Attorneys General, agreed to make available to the public millions of documents from their files.  By 2000, digital technology had developed to a point that the University of California, San Francisco Library was able to take these memos, reports, correspondence, videos and more and put them in a searchable database on the Internet for all to see.  And, in 2006 we were able to make the text of the documents themselves fully searchable. 

Advocates for pharmaceutical industry reform will have the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of companies, drugs and issues because plaintiff attorneys in lawsuits against pharma companies can ask the courts to make the documents that have been submitted to them available to the public.  When that happens we’ll add the documents to DIDA. 

So, long story short, it’s always been necessary for advocates to have information about what corporations are doing but now it’s possible to a greater extent than it was before.

PS: At this juncture in the Information Age, it seems DIDA and the Legacy library are each part of a larger trend of information aggregation. Still, concerns about the consequences of too much information—data mining, wiretapping, corporate and government monitoring—have spread; for instance, in 2002 librarians became privacy advocates when the government invoked the Patriot Act to search library records. 

Are they flip sides of the coin, two ways that information abundance is used, sometimes to counteract one another? And must we take one with the other? Or is there good and bad information collection, and how do we parse that out in a public way?

KK: For the most part, technology is ethically neutral. But there are moral implications for the way that people use technology.  So, I don’t think that the aggregation of information is in itself a bad thing.  However, it can be used in a myriad of ways along the good – evil spectrum.  Yes, the public needs to be ever vigilant that the government and corporations don’t use data in a way that is harmful to people.

PS: What lessons did you take from the LTDL, and were there any that came as a surprise to you?

KK: I’m not sure I’ve learned any lessons from LTDL, but I have learned a lot about how the tobacco industry operates — how the companies manipulate scientific research and public opinion, how they’ve spent a great deal of money creating materials to convince their own employees that it’s okay to work for them, how they’ve pursued their legal strategies, and how tenacious they are in marketing their “nicotine-delivery devices” internationally, among other issues.

Sadly, none of this was surprising to me.  But it has been really interesting to watch videos and read documents that the companies never thought would see the light of day.