A multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a Californian university professor will erode the objectivity of research funded by corporations, according to worried American academics.
In the California case, a pharmaceutical company sought to block publication of results that reflected unfavourably on an Aids drug it had paid to have tested.
Academics are concerned at the terms of similar agreements that allow funders to review results of research before they are published, ostensibly to protect commercially sensitive information.
"What this case underscores is the importance of making sure that the arrangement between the researcher and the corporate sponsor is consistent with principles of academic freedom," said Jonathan Knight, associate secretary for academic freedom of the American Association of University Professors. "Specifically that the researcher will have the right to publish the fruits of his or her research without prior approval from the company."
The drug manufacturer, Immune Response Corporation, has demanded $10 million (£6.7 million) from James O. Kahn, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco. Dr Kahn and a co-author, Stephen W. Lagakos of Harvard University, published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that a drug produced by the company was ineffective against the HIV virus.
Immune Response claimed the doctors had withheld other findings favourable to the drug. "We tried to work with Dr Kahn to produce an accurate, meaningful and balanced manuscript," company president Dennis Carlo said. "We felt the patient population had the right to know what went on in this study."
The university is backing Dr Kahn, saying his decision to publish the study was within his rights. But critics say other universities may be swayed by the economic ramifications of angering rich corporate sponsors.
The top ten pharmaceutical companies spent $23 billion on clinical research last year, five times as much as the federal government provided.
The amount of private funding for university research remains a modest 7 per cent, up from less than 4 per cent ten years ago. "The caveat is that in some disciplines - namely medicine, chemistry and engineering - it has a very significant effect," Mr Knight said. The University of California at Berkeley has reached a five-year agreement with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis to fund all the research in the department of microbiology in exchange for first rights to discoveries that emerge there.
"It's a worrisome kind of development that a department in such a major institution would turn over so much of its outside resources to a single corporation," Mr Knight said.
Richard Scheffler, chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, told a conference: "Economic considerations may lead those sponsoring research to suppress unwelcome results, reserve the right to delay or edit publications, and insist that faculty sign non-disclosure agreements, all of which effectively deprives faculty of their traditional authority to take full advantage of their research."
Two North American university-affiliated medical researchers - Nancy Olivieri and David Kern - have already lost their jobs for going public with information that was potentially damaging to their corporate sponsors.