Researchers, not their funders, must have the last word on their work

The practice of allowing sponsors to control research publication is rife despite being a corrupting 'form of fraud', says David Packham

February 18, 2010

According to the occasionally reliable Daily Mail, a registrar from a university in the west of England has recently been dismissed for selling false degree certificates. Why was he dismissed? As far as I know, the vice-chancellor has not said, so we must make a guess. Here was an enterprising young man, developing an alternative income stream. But he was doing this privately, using university facilities for his personal gain. Suppose he had treated this as a consultancy, paid the university for the facilities used, and an agreed proportion of the profit: would he have been encouraged and praised for his initiative? I hope not.

I hope not because the very purpose of a university is to spread new and existing knowledge and understanding. The selling of bogus degree certificates may not directly attack this purpose, but it comes very close to doing so. However good the education provided, few students would choose a university that did this.

A university spreads new and existing knowledge and understanding not just by teaching, but also through research. To be true to its purpose, a university must strive for its research to be of the highest integrity, in the words of the 1988 Bologna Declaration of the European vice-chancellors: "morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power". The university must not publish as research what is known to be biased or false.

Suppose an enterprising young researcher came up with a proposal to do research for an extramural sponsor who would pay the university well. The research would probably lead to higher degrees and to peer-reviewed publications. Would he be encouraged? Of course.

Suppose, further, that this sponsor insisted on control of all publications arising from the research to ensure that its interests were furthered by the publications. It might insist on a legally binding clause to the effect that "the researcher shall insert all the sponsor's amendments before submitting any work for publication". Would the researcher still be encouraged? Unfortunately, almost certainly yes.

The insertion by government departments and commercial sponsors of clauses into university contracts that give them complete control of the research publications is widespread. The result is deeply corrupting. Higher degree theses in university libraries may be kept secret for decades. Researchers can be put in a position of having to choose between keeping their jobs and publicising serious health risks. Those whose work challenges government policies have been vilified, suffering a drying-up of research funds with long-term damage to their careers.

Anyone not familiar with the, now extensive, literature on this, could do worse than to start by googling "Nancy Olivieri", "Aubrey Blumsohn", "Stanton Glantz and tobacco" or "Baty, Times Higher Education passim" or by visiting my website (http://people.bath.ac.uk/mssdep).

Trustworthy knowledge is essential to the functioning of the state: public health and consumer protection as well as political discourse and legal disputation are among the areas where it is vital. Universities have traditionally provided such knowledge, but their capacity to do so in the future is being undermined.

The practice of giving a sponsor control of publication contravenes the Economic and Social Research Council Research Ethics Framework, is outlawed by the world's leading medical journals, and has been attacked by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee as "a form of fraud that corrupts the whole use of science in Government". In the field of medical and pharmaceutical research, the problem has become such a scandal that the late Pope John Paul II warned: "The very ethics of research can be undermined ... when financial groups claim the right to permit the publication of research data depending on whether or not such data are in the interests of the groups themselves."

Despite all this, commerce and, a fortiori, government departments insist on such clauses and universities commonly accept them. This practice directly undermines the very purpose of a university, to spread new and existing knowledge and understanding. Universities are selling their birthright. It is the equivalent of giving undergraduate students a transcript and degree certificate at the end of their course, but allowing them to make "any amendments that they see fit", including amendments to the class of their degree.

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