In theory, it shouldn’t matter where authors of scientific papers get their research funding, a longtime journal editor once told me. Papers should be judged on their own merits, not based on who funded the scientists who collected and analyzed the data. But in practice, as journals are increasingly recognizing, funding sources matter.
Thanks to documents obtained from court settlements, whistleblowers and investigations by reporters and U.S. congressmen, we know that corporations hire scientists to write studies that help delay regulations, defend products worth billions and discredit research to protect their bottom line.
Reviews of studies in several high-stake fields, including pharmaceutical research, chemical toxicity and passive smoking, have found a “funding effect.” Researchers who receive funding from industry in these fields, the reviews show, are more likely than those who don’t take industry money to publish results in line with the company’s interests.
That’s why the watchdog group Climate Investigations Center (CIC) has been investigating the funding sources of Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics known for disputing the role of rising greenhouse gas emissions in climate change, in contrast to the overwhelming majority of climate researchers and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And now, as a report released by CIC and Greenpeace on Wednesday details, the group has turned its attention to the journals who publish his papers.
As a result, five journals, including an Elsevier ethics committee, are investigating charges that Soon failed to disclose financial ties to the fossil fuel industry in papers published by the journals since 2008. Soon characterized these papers as “deliverables” in grant reports to his corporate sponsors, CIC charges, citing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The Soon investigation is intended to underscore the need for greater transparency in science publishing about conflicts of interest, CIC Executive Director Kert Davies told me. “This is a strong case study of how corporate interests have intentionally used the scientific literature,” Davies says.
CIC is also asking PNAS and Nature Geoscience to reassess papers Soon published in the journals in the past two years, when he did not disclose grants he received from utility giant Southern Co. and Donors Trust, a foundation that encourages anonymous donations to support limited government. Donors Trust received nearly $5 million from a Koch family foundation in 2013 alone.
Three of the journals do not have identifiable conflict of interest policies, according to the report. PLOS considers the disclosure of competing interests – which can include non-financial, professional and personal conflicts — as essential to the transparent reporting of research. Manuscripts submitted by authors who fail to declare such conflicts may be rejected immediately after a conflict comes to light. If a conflict is revealed after publication, journal editors will follow guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics and notify the community.
CIC has been corresponding with the journals since February, when the nonprofit and Greenpeace released documents showing that Soon had received over $1.2 million from fossil fuel interests since 2001 that he failed to disclose in at least 11 papers. The documents show that Soon accepted money from ExxonMobil Corp., the American Petroleum Institute, the Charles G. Koch Foundation and Southern Co., one of the largest electric utility companies in the United States valued at $40 billion.
Soon rarely talks to media outlets but reportedly said that funding does not bias his findings.
Charles Koch and his brother, David, regularly give millions of dollars to foundations and think tanks like The Heartland Institute – which sponsors an annual conference for global warming deniers, where Soon is a regular speaker – that support the fossil fuel industry that made them billionaires. Southern Co. remains reliant on coal-fired plants, a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, and supports voluntary measures to mitigate climate change.
Conflicts of interest can violate scientific ethics and skew scientific results as much as fabricating or manipulating research results can, argues Sheldon Krimsky, an adjunct professor in public health and family medicine at Tufts University who has long studied the funding effect. He argues that lack of transparency about conflicts of interest to reviewers, journals and readers should be considered scientific misconduct.
The full extent of biased corporate influence on the scientific literature is difficult to measure. To guard against it, academic institutions and scientific journals must be more vigilant against dubious research crafted to serve a corporate agenda, Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian of science who documents industry strategies to bend science to their interests, told The New York Times.
The key point, as Oreskes argued in a 2004 paper in Environmental and Science Policy, is not that support from industry is intrinsically problematic. “Rather,” she wrote, “the issue is that the research is supported by a sponsor who wants a particular result…and the researchers know in advance what that outcome is, producing an explicit conflict of interest, which undermines the integrity of the research performed.”
Journals can uphold their duty as guardians of scientific integrity by doing a better job of enforcing their conflict of interest policies, perhaps by tailoring practices that ensure compliance with data and animal research policies to codes of scientific conduct. Failure to do so threatens not just the public’s trust in the results of the research they fund, but the integrity of science itself. With corporate funding of scientific research now outpacing government funding, the difference between theory and practice regarding the potential for biases from industry funding is too great – and the stakes too high – to be ignored.