Censoring research

I am posting this for all Injury Prevention blog readers who are researchers or interested in research. I do so in part because John Langley is one of the pioneers in our field and was one of the Senior members of our editorial board from IP’s earliest days. But I also do so because the issue that prompted him to write this op-ed for his local Otago paper is by no means restricted to New Zealand. It is a widespread and important issue that has the potential to corrupt research in all manner of ways. IBP 

Read it and think carefully about the implications for your own work. Thanks to John for sharing it and for ODT for permission to reproduce it. Thankfully Injury Prevention, to the best of my knowledge, has never had to deal with this issue.

 Restrictive publication clauses in health research contracts

I was both pleased and disappointed to read the two ODT articles (20 February, 5 March) on this subject. Public airing of this important issue is long overdue. I was disappointed as I gained the impression that despite several scientists publicly expressing their concerns, the University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research appeared to have none. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s apparent lack of concern, however, is consistent with my experiences of research administration at the University.

For 20 years I was the Director of the University of Otago’s Injury Prevention Research Unit. This Unit was entirely dependent on funds from government agencies. Contrary to my expectations, the University of Otago did not pro-actively seek to protect me, or the public, from clauses in draft contracts that placed restrictions on publishing research findings. Protecting researchers increases the chances that they can serve the public interest, and meet the University’s legislated role of being the critic and conscience of society.

I spent a significant amount of time challenging clauses that would allow a government agency to censor a finding they disagreed with, or deny the right to publish work at all. On a couple of occasions during contract negotiations I was reminded by government agencies that they could purchase the outputs they wanted from other Universities or private organisations who would accept the restrictive clauses.

Why would Universities be accepting these clauses? I believe a key factor is the importance of, and competition associated with, generating research income. Collectively, NZ’s eight publicly funded universities derive approximately 15% of their income from research contracts. The success a University has, relative to others, in obtaining external research funds also has a significant role in determining the funding it receives from government through the Performance Based Research Funding scheme. Research income is critical to ensuring high quality research, thereby maintaining and enhancing a university’s reputation and thus attracting students, staff, and further funding. The purchasers of research can use the competition between universities, and researchers, to their advantage in getting restrictive publication clauses accepted.

Private research suppliers can accept restrictive publication clauses as they are typically uninterested in publishing in peer-reviewed journals and have no statutory or moral obligation to serve the public interest. While they would produce a research report for the purchaser, these reports are not frequently published, easy to access, or subject to rigorous quality control, e.g., independent peer review.

It was also my experience that many senior researchers did not care about the restrictive clauses. Why would this be so? Success in attracting research funding is, for most researchers, critical to pursuing their research, producing publications, and to promotion and public recognition.

This behaviour contrasts with Royal Society of New Zealand’s (RSNZ) Code of Professional Standards and Ethics in Science, Technology, and the Humanities. Section 8.1 of that code states that members of the Society must: “oppose any manipulation of results to meet the perceived needs or requirements of employers, funding agencies, the media or other clients and interested parties whether this be attempted before or after the relevant data have been obtained;”

I accept the right of a purchaser of research to see an advance copy of any paper for publication and to make any comments on it. But requiring modification beyond correcting factual errors is unacceptable. Even purchasers suggesting toning down a phrase here and there and putting in some qualifiers is problematic from a purchaser who is concerned to minimize bad publicity that might arise from the paper. It also places the researchers in a bind. Should they comply? If they don’t comply are they putting at risk future research funding from the purchaser? I suggest they might be. Why deal again with a ‘difficult’ group of researchers when you can purchase the work elsewhere?

The best approach to this issue is transparency. Make the deliberations between researchers and purchaser accessible to all as in the open review practiced by some scientific journals so readers can trace the discussion. This approach would not deal with contracts that explicitly prohibit the researchers publishing at all.

The Health Promotion Agency (HPA), a crown entity, charged with promoting healthy lifestyles recently put out a request for proposals (RFP) to assess whether the reduction in trading hours in Wellington has any impact on alcohol-related harm. The ‘indicative’ contract for this RFP stated: The Supplier will not publish the results of the Services undertaken pursuant to this Contract”. Only when challenged did HPA advise that it was a negotiable clause. Potential University researchers interested in bidding for such research should be able to take the ‘indicative’ contract as a reflection of the intent of the purchaser. Irrespective of this, preparing a high quality research proposal involves significant resources and many researchers would consider it was not worth the effort given the uncertainty of their right to publish.

In effect, some government purchasers are getting to decide what findings, if any, the public gets to see from research the public has paid for, either by pressuring some universities to accept restrictive clauses or by buying what they want from private suppliers.

Universities of New Zealand, the representative body of New Zealand’s eight universities, and the RSNZ need to enter in discussions with Government with a view to ensuring government research RFPs do not impose these restrictions. Interference with researchers ability to bid for, execute, and publish research compromises the role universities have as critics and conscience of society.

We need an independent audit of government research contracting to determine to what degree restrictive publication practices and the use of private suppliers is undermining the public’s right to be fully informed of the findings of research they have paid for.

Emeritus Prof John Langley