Sunday, October 11, 2015

Disclosure of What?

A comment to my last post, on the Litan affair and the importance of disclosure, has got me thinking.  As was point out, Litan had disclosed his funding; what he hadn’t disclosed was that his funder had commissioned the work.  This raises the larger question of what sorts of disclosure ought to be required.  A researcher’s relationship to external interests is not a binary, yes-no matter; there are multiple levels.

The obvious answer, how much money changed hands, is not very informative, in my opinion.  A lot of funding can be earmarked for expenses, and even the meaning of an “expense” is open.  If a professor has a course bought out, is this an expense or a benefit?

I think the question that tripped up Litan, whether the funder commissioned the work in question, is germane, although there are large ambiguities here as well.  Sometimes a researcher will go to an agency or foundation with a proposal and request that a particular piece of work be commissioned; I’ve done this myself.  But is that the same as having someone come to you, ask for a specific product and then pay you enough to convince you to do it?

For me the most important question is whether the researcher has an obligation to share results or manuscript drafts prior to public dissemination.  Whether there is a further understanding that the funder’s explicit approval is necessary to go forward may be relevant, but not necessarily.  The critical line, in my opinion, divides research with strings, like the obligation to submit drafts, from research without.  I believe it should always be specified whether a report or article was reviewed by an interested party before it was released to the public.

These are preliminary thoughts on my part, and readers may have insights I haven’t considered.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Researchers who are funded by identifiable entities rather than by more amorphous groups such as NGOs and the government are always subject to the potential for bias. If the researcher knows the source of the funds he/she will also have a reasonable assumption regarding the intention of the support. That source of potential bias is enhanced by other factors, such as knowing expectations and of the source. the bias can only get stronger. A blinded source is important for that reason. The researcher cannot be freed from the bias even if only to know that the source may provide funding in the future if the results of the research meet the source of funding's expectations or intentions. The bias can't be avoided even with the best intentions. Bias is not always apparent to the individual. Some of my best friends do research.