Speaking the truth to power 1

May 28, 2009

It is important not to impose a restrictive version of academic freedom that hides the power interests driving expert voices behind the veil of peer review ("Don't fear open access", Letters, 21 May). Academic freedom is primarily the freedom to report findings without restriction or threat of punishment. It can be viewed as the duty to speak the truth to power, a duty we as academics have in return for our privileged place in society.

In "reporting" our findings, we apply inductive steps to translate findings produced under ideal, laboratory or context-dependent conditions, to help a wider audience make sense of the world in some way. There is almost no pure "reporting" of findings that have been through peer review, rather those findings are interpreted, often by the academic.

Academic freedom ensures that it is not powerful interests that control what can be reported. Medic and writer Ben Goldacre has fought to make the point that big pharma seeks to control which peer-reviewed drug trials are reported, how they are reported, and who will see the reports, and invests heavily and profitably in doing that.

The best check on powerful interests exclusively determining what is reported is that academics themselves speak freely and reasonably, translating their research from its peer-reviewed context, and reporting their findings to make a wider point about the world. Only by ensuring academic freedom can society be sure it is getting the greatest benefits from the considerable privileges we enjoy as publicly funded intellectuals.

Paul Benneworth, RCUK academic fellow, Newcastle University.

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