Unsealing science: UCSF’s Chemical Industry Documents Library

Why would the University of California San Francisco host internal industry emails, scientific studies, and public relations campaigns in its Industry Documents Library (IDL)?  Because UCSF is dedicated to producing and using the best science to benefit the public’s health – and if science is manipulated or misrepresented, that can result in negative effects. Documents in the IDL reveal industry thinking, strategizing, and operations on matters central to public health. Providing public access to otherwise-unavailable corporate records enforces corporate transparency, enriches public discussion, and ultimately ensures that accurate data and science inform decisions on health.

The UCSF Industry Documents Library, a digital archive of nearly 15 million internal tobacco, drug, and chemical industry documents are used by scientists, community advocates, journalists, policymakers, attorneys, and others in their efforts to improve and protect public health. Its flagship Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library–founded in 2002 as the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library– has received more than 7 million visitors and has been instrumental in furthering tobacco control research and education for over a generation.  The research supported by the IDL has led to some of the most successful policy outcomes of the “tobacco wars,” by exposing, in their own words, what the tobacco industry knew about the health impacts of tobacco, when they knew it, and how industry covered up and distorted the available scientific evidence to enrich their deadly profits. The documents library underpins rigorous and scholarly research on influences and biases in science – which improves the basis of scientific findings and ultimately saves lives.

As of August 2018, more than 1,000 scholarly articles, news items, books, and other publications have been written using IDL documents as primary source material.  Tobacco industry documents have been used in:

  • Seminal books including The Cigarette Papers by Stanton Glantz and colleagues,  The Golden Holocaust by Robert Proctor and The Cigarette Century by Alan Brandt;
  • Playing with Fire, the Chicago Tribune’s expose on flame retardants;
  • The 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt;
  • Submissions to the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) for the FDA’s recommendations on menthol; and
  • The Center for International Environmental Law’s website Smoke & Fumes, which combines oil industry and tobacco industry documents to reveal connections between them.

UCSF’s Industry Documents collections are the result of the discovery process in litigation, public records requests, and whistle-blowers.  The documents are donated by lawyers, non-profit organizations, and private individuals.  Once a collection is accepted by the IDL, each document is optical character recognition (OCR) scanned to maximize search-ability and enhance research ease. The Library tags each document with metadata descriptors such as authors, people mentioned, date written and acquired for each document, and document type (e.g., deposition, email, memo), allowing researchers and users to access the documents and cross-reference them easily with the public record and other databases. Researchers are able to search within one industry archive, or across all industry archives at once, facilitating evaluation of connections and threads of research.

Housing these documents at UCSF provides a protected but public archive for the documents.  Industries known for subverting science and manipulating public knowledge are unable to tamper with documents that once fully evaluated and contextualized may be acted upon to promote public safety.  The UCSF Library also creates a portal where researchers can search for and access the documents most relevant for their research, rather than having to rely on private companies and search engines that return sub-optimal results because they are not tailored for research purposes. Other users can easily build on previous research because the Library’s format makes citations reliable and accessible for future use. Curating the documents, highlighting documents new to the collection, collecting peer-reviewed research on the documents, and communicating to the public about the database further work to preserve the documents as a democratic commons and academic resource.

Three new collections are in the process of being added to the Chemical Industry Documents Library: the Benzene Collection; the Glyphosate and Agrochemical Collection; and the Poison Papers.  On September 13, 2018, the UCSF Environmental Health Initiative, in collaboration with the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and the UCSF Industry Documents Library, will host two timely and important events, open to the public, on the science and stories contained within these documents. Donors of the collections will discuss what the documents mean for public health and the challenges they faced to make them available to the public.  While these collections are recently added and not yet fully explored by researchers, they promise to advance our understanding of the relationship between the chemical industry and public health much in the same way we learned about tobacco.  To register for the event, please click here.

The Chemical Industry Documents Library has been developed in partnership with UCSF’s Environmental Health Initiative with a grant from the Marisla Foundation and the generous support of Rachel’s Network.

About the authors

AMC picAnnemarie Charlesworth, MA is the Associate Director of the Environmental Health Initiative (EHI) and Director of the Clinical Outreach and Translation team of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE).  She brings over 15 years of program evaluation, design and implementation expertise to the EHI.

YogiYogi Hale Hendlin, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, and works on the social and environmental determinants of health arising from industry-created epidemics.