Evidence from scientific papers suggests researchers in Europe have made negligible progress in reporting on the treatment of animals in their studies or on the implementation of the 3Rs (Replace, Reduction and Refinement of animal testing), says the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).

In a study published in Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, Dr Katy Taylor, senior science advisor for the BUAV, randomly sampled 16 high-profile medical journals for original research papers from European institutions that featured experiments involving either mice or non-human primates.

Each of the 250 papers published between 1986 and 2006 was reviewed and scored out of 10 for the incidence of reporting on the implementation of factors associated with Replacement (i.e., justification for non-use of non-animal methods), Reduction (statistical analysis of the number of animals required) and Refinement (housing aspects, e.g., increased cage size, enrichment of cage environment; procedural aspects, e.g., use of anaesthesia, humane endpoints) of animal testing.

Taylor did not find any significant increase in the overall reporting score over time, for either mouse or primate research. By 2006, the mouse papers were scoring an average of 0 out of a possible 10, and the primate papers an average of 1.5 out of 10. The review “provides systematic evidence that animal research is still not properly reported”, Taylor said.

More specifically, it highlighted “endemic” failure to justify the numbers of animals used in research or even to report briefly on why non-animal methods could not be used, the BUAV noted. Even by 2006, only 20% of papers involving mouse research were including the number of animals used in their methods section.

Reports of providing anaesthesia or analgesia were “extremely low”, despite all of the studies reviewed involving licensed research capable of causing pain, suffering and distress to animals, the association added. While 12% of mice received anaesthesia, for example, only 4% of papers reported giving the mice any other pain relief.

In addition, fewer than 5% of those papers involving mouse research reported on cage enrichment or on the animals’ lives in any way, the BUAV pointed out. In papers reporting on primate research, even by 2006 fewer than 10% were recording that the animals were housed in larger than standard or in enriched cages, while fewer than 30% reported housing of primates in conditions other than isolation.  

“Proponents of animal research claim that animals are well looked after and that suffering is kept to a minimum, yet even in their own research reporting, scientists don’t bother to record how this has been achieved,” commented Michelle Thew, chief executive of the BUAV.

Only source

As animal researchers may be nervous about full transparency, published papers are often the only source of information about adherence to the 3Rs, Taylor observed. Yet a survey by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), published in the American Journal of Bioethics in 2009, found that 53% of 236 journals reviewed had no meaningful policy on the use of animals.

In the era of online publishing, “it should be more, rather than less, possible to include a complete methods section which pays full regard to the Three Rs”, Taylor commented.

“While there is continuing debate about improving the transparency of animal experiments, it is imperative that journals have Three Rs policies that require that research is conducted according to current best practice and that the papers themselves contain information on parameters that can have key scientific and Three Rs bearing,” she said.