Academic freedom stifled by contracts

October 6, 2000

Academic freedom is yielding to commercial interests as companies hiring university researchers are drafting contracts that play in their favour, according to a recent analysis of research agreements.

Genevi ve Cardinal, a Universite de Montreal masters student, studied the research contracts of more than 50 Canadian academics and their North American commercial partners. Using her experience as a lawyer, she found that the contracts, which focused primarily on genetic research agreements, were rarely drafted with biomedical research in mind.

"Most are commercial contracts that have been adapted to suit the research," she said. Commercial interests in these contracts were rarely compatible with accepted scientific protocol, she said. "Interpretations of transparency, for example, can vary."

The findings, published in Health Law Journal, highlight the clash between academic and corporate cultures. They detail the pressure being put on academics to keep their research results to themselves and their company. Many researchers signed agreements that prevented them from sharing their results with colleagues for more than six months after the trials were complete.

The answer to the problem may lie in researchers' playing a bigger role in the original agreement. As Ms Cardinal noted: "Contracts between researchers and private corporations have rarely been drafted by the biomedical researcher."

Ms Cardinal suggested that academics should look closely at the fine print of their contracts to prevent them from getting in a situation in which the results of their studies go against what the company wants to have published.

Canada's most famous case of a commercial contract gone awry is that of Nancy Olivieri, the University of Toronto blood specialist who fought successfully to clear her name after being fired by pharmaceuticals firm Apotex in 1995.

Dr Olivieri tried to warn of the dangerous iron build-ups she had found in tests carried out on a drug for thalassaemia patients. The company threatened to sue if she went public with her results, claiming that the dissemination went against a confidentiality agreement she had signed.

In Corporate Campus, a book of 16 essays that warns of the danger of commercialisation in higher education, Dr Olivieri writes that no academic should sign restrictive contracts. She says she does not trust universities to come to the aid of their researchers.

Dr Olivieri's university, which steered clear of her problems with Apotex by calling it a "scientific debate", was, it later emerged, trying at the same time to secure a large donation from the firm.

"Far from struggling to uphold and protect the principles of academic freedom and scientific integrity, to protect the lone investigator, scientist or doctor in the face of the for-profit companies in situations such as mine, most hospitals or universities do mostly nothing," Dr Olivieri writes.

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