Home/ Opinion / Time to stem the ‘corruption’ in scientific studies

Two magazines that I skimmed this week, The Economist and Wired, carried articles about the compromising of scientific research. While the former stated that some scientific journals, which claim to perform a “peer review" on the papers they publish, do not actually perform one, the latter spoke of how the liquor lobby has been able to compromise a study into the cardiovascular benefits of consuming moderate amounts of alcohol.

Journal editors, who oversee peer-reviewed journals, are supposed to send submissions to some of the author’s peers, usually to test whether the claims the author is making can be replicated by the reviewers independently in their own laboratories. According to The Economist, one estimate puts the number of questionable papers without peer review at over 400,000!

In an eerie reflection of the internet today, where anyone on a social networking site or messaging app can quickly write up a “false news" story and make it go viral, behind this ballooning of questionable scientific papers is a change in the way many journals make their money. Over the past decade, many have stopped selling subscriptions. They instead charge authors a publication fee and then permit people to read the papers for nothing. This business model risks corrupting true scientific knowledge. Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Denver, now maintains a list of such “predatory journals" in an attempt to temper this corruption.

This sounds similar to the “free access" model that is provided by many social networking sites and messaging apps so that they can make their money through targeted advertisements instead —and the social network’s users are actually the products for sale. In addition, until recently, there has been next to zero policing of the content that users might post on such sites or messaging platforms, justifiably leading to a backlash against such platforms and increased regulatory scrutiny across the globe.

The other example, from Wired, cited a $100 million, 10-year-long study that was run by the US’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) named the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial. Investigative reporters at The New York Times uncovered some time ago that researchers under the supervision of NIH had aggressively sought funding from the liquor industry to conduct the study, while implying that it would turn out to be favourable if liquor companies paid up. This problem is a more familiar one—the blurring of ethical lines when supposedly “independent" scientific researchers accept money from industry. NIH initiated an audit and has now pulled the plug on the multi-year study.

Both these are economic externalities caused by today’s modes for the funding of science. Science was long considered a bastion of independent research—and relied on funding either from governments or from no-strings-attached grants from trusts. My take is that the steady drying up of such funding is what has caused these anomalies to occur.

Interestingly enough, one does not see this anomaly in the technology world and in some areas of the life sciences, like pharmaceutical research. The reason is simple. Businesses directly invest in research only if they see the potential of economic returns from it. Pharma companies spend billions on research and development and, after they have a successful drug, many more millions on promoting it—partly by sponsoring research papers that doctors will read. All this spend is transparent. In other words, the fact that profit is the motive is always clear, and the market ends up being the final arbiter of whether a new technology or a new drug is a money spinner.

My conclusion from both these examples is that we need to take the “independent" veil off research spending and publication in science. We would be a lot better off if we stated the profit motive from the get-go and allowed the economics of the market to guide where research money is spent.

I realize this is not a black and white discussion. Nonetheless, taking a polarized position allows for debate. My brother-in-law, a researcher and professor of medicine in the US, vehemently disagrees with me since he feels that the system is already transparent and does not need change.

But, in the words of an old B.B. King song, “As long as I’m paying the bills, I’m paying the cost to be the boss."

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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Updated: 02 Jul 2018, 10:36 PM IST
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