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Friday, 18 October 2013

Don't leave that Space (Oddity): disclaimers and conflicts of interest in expert opinions

Classic post-IP conference entertainment
(Disclaimer: Merpel is the one to the left of the DJ)
Following her post on academic perspectives for enthusiastic IP PhD folks earlier this week, the naturally bashful Merpel has reverted once again to the handy facility of the IPKat weblog in order to elicit readers' opinions on another matter of great concern to her, ie transparency in academic (but also practitioners') writings.

Here's Merpel's experience, based on her own observations of a phenomenon that appears to occurring with a (worryingly) increasing frequency in recent times:

"As those who know me are well aware of, I am a constant presence at cocktail receptionsbuffets conferences and other cheerful gatherings of IP folk. When there, it is quite common that conversation becomes boring focused on latest studies or expert (often academic) opinions which purport to provide an objective and absolutely scientific perspective on an issue of current concern, especially in what has become an highly contentious area of IP, ie copyright. 

In Merpel's experience, however, it would seem that people are either unaware that these studies have been commissioned by some stakeholders [despite the presence of relevant disclaimers, that however sometimes -- and possibly regrettably -- are printed in miniscule type and/or are placed at the very end of these documents, on the assumption that people will actually read that far] or are unable to say whether any of the drafters of opinions released by groups of relatively numerous academics (but not just these) have declared their actual or potential conflict of interest in relation to the matter treated in those enlightening studies. 
Are you sure
you didn't forget anything?

In other words, there are times when (i) there are no disclaimers or indications of involvement, or (ii) where they exist, disclaimers aren’t sufficiently prominent. 

Either way the problem may be that the authority attributed to those studies, which come not just from the expertise but also the DISINTEREST of the author(s), might be inappropriately conferred on them.

A first question might be certainly whether this depends on readers who do not pay enough attention to these details or do not actually care about them. Merpel is however inclined to respond in the negative as, she is told, some people get pretty upset that they have not noticed these not-completely-insignificant details before.

... Because Bruno
can't see a thing
without his microscope
So the main questions are:

(1) Should opinions drafted by groups of academics or practitioners contain a clear statement that says that the study in question has not been "funded by, nor has been instructed by any particular stakeholders" [this phrase appears at the very beginning of the recent Opinion of the European Copyright Society in Case C-466/12 Svensson, on which see here and here] and – especially in the context of pending cases – also that no drafters have an actual or potential conflict of interest, resulting (for instance) from the fact that they have acted or currently act for any of the parties involved in the litigation?


(2) Should disclaimers be made more visible, ie by placing them at the very beginning of these pieces in a pretty visible – and possibly large – font? [A sudden thought: is there something we can learn here from health warnings and tobacco labelling regulations ...?]"


What do readers think? How can these important aspects be improved?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. It was about time for a serious discussion on this shameful state of affairs to be commenced. I would applaud disclaimers in the style of cigarette boxes.

Anonymous said...

Surely, when handed a piece of research purporting to support or reject a particular proposition, one should always ask who funded it, what they might stand to gain from adopting the conclusion of the research, and whether there might be an conscious or unconscious selectivity or bias? The same is true for groups of academics and practitioners, who also may be stakeholders in a system, as it is for trade bodies, industry and other lobbyists, and representative societies. Asking the question is of course not the same as discrediting the research, and those wth an interest also have the resources and access to data to permit robust analysis, but doing so can often serve as a reminder always to read critically, and to seek to undertand the limits of any particular study.

Norman said...

Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Pharma, has an excellent discussion of conflict of interest and disclosure as a response.

Anonymous said...

This is an important topic and while I'm in favor of disclosures, I am wary of any sort of formal regulation to require it like with pharma or cigarettes. It's despicable if a company/interest group doesn't include their relationship to the research as it will undermine the potentially valuable work in the long run once the interest is disclosed. For people who are involved in a pending litigation, I'm much more comfortable with a disclosure requirement/regulation. I agree with the earlier anonymous commenter that surely readers should be asking those questions and not give the research any weight until the information is available.

Hugh said...

Adding to the second Anonymous comment, I think it would help the academics themselves if they knew they had to declare interests. It would alert to them to their own possible biases, which might even be subconscious.

I think this leads to the wider questions of whether particular academics might be selected for funding because they are known to have certain views and perspectives.

Anonymous said...

Sunlight is the best antiseptic...

...except to those who want things to fester.


Anyone already publishing (including blogs) should be professional enough at the onset to idnetify potential bias and curb that bias to the extent possible.

Alas, free speech and commercial speech often far overlap.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the IP journals could take a page from their cousins in the scientific publishing industry-- many of them require such disclosures.

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