The team is joined by Guest Kats Rosie Burbidge, Stephen Jones, Mathilde Parvis, and Eibhlin Vardy, and by InternKats Verónica Rodríguez Arguijo, Hayleigh Bosher, Tian Lu and Cecilia Sbrolli.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Concerns about research ethics in ip, there are.

There's a disturbance in the force. A number of voices in the IP community have signed an, "Open Letter on Ethical Norms in Intellectual Property Scholarship."  It is a call to set, and uphold, high ethical standards in IP research. Largely concerned with legal scholarship, the letter focuses on private funding, transparency and objectivity in academic research.

(The Clone Wars, by Pities)
There are five Star Wars references
in this post - can you spot them all?
Why is private funding potentially a problem? Research stemming from direct (commissioned) or indirect (donations, grants etc.) funding tends to reach research conclusions which benefit the funders. The is most obvious in the "Big Tobacco" public health scandal. Research contrary to the tobacco industry's interests was ignored, and the industry commissioned academic and economic research to bolster their arguments. This research, directly or indirectly, contributed to a public health scandal which damaged all those involved. Concerns about the industry's funded research persist, and research organisations and journals have banned research funded by the tobacco industry.  Similar concerns have emerged in Coca Cola's funding of obesity research and "Big Sugar," (more here.)

At stake in the IP world is ethical policy debates.  Academic IP researchers are increasingly involved in advocacy. <Merpel notes that some of the Katonomist's blogging could be considered as such.> Research and evidence is "political ammunition" in policy debates and this evidence should be held to a high academic standard. The authors of the letter argue:
"We cannot imagine that any academic believes that his or her judgment is subject to purchase. Nevertheless, the flow of dollars can have an insidious effect on values we hold dear in academia. We have seen evidence in other fields that researchers who receive gifts and support can have an uncanny tendency to find results that would please their benefactors. One must be mindful of the delicate pull of friends with money."
The IP 'Open Letter' recommends ten professional norms for IP researchers (paraphrased in parentheses):
  1. Research disclosure (research funding is disclosed)
  2. General personal disclosure (researcher's other ties are disclosed)
  3. Institutional disclosure (institution's funding is disclosed)
  4. No quid pro quo (conclusions can not be dictated in exchange for funding)
  5. No prior approval (funders do not have the right to approve/disapprove publication)
  6. Data disclosure and replication (data is made available)
  7. Collegiately and open inquiry (play nice and no bullying)
  8. Dispersed institutional funding (institutions should have diverse funding)
  9. Call for action (discussion on norms should continue)
These are standard ethical norms for research in general, and particularly for academic research.  As the authors of the letter note, such norms are less established in the legal community.

Meow Wars, by Kevin Dooley
First a quick lesson on academic research funding.  Public research funding is non-politicised, grant funding which is managed by the government using taxpayer funds.  In the UK, it should be compliant with the long-standing Haldane principle, which states that researchers, not politicians, should decide how research funding is spent. Private funding is essentially everything else (industry, charity, commissioned research, etc.) and includes a lot of grey areas.  Most of the ethical concerns discussed here are associated with private funding.  Public funding is not immune to these concerns, and recent changes in UK research funding are prompting concerns of the politicisation and  subsequent contravention of the Haldane principle.  

Your Kat's Thoughts

The Open Letter suggests not a lack of faith, but a concern about disturbing questions regarding the issues such as independence of copyright research and a lack of transparency in funded research centres.  As evidence-based policy continues as the dominant principle in IP policy, independent evidence is crucial.  Biased evidence becomes biased political ammunition. Similar arguments can be made for the academic research in court cases and authorship of amicus cure briefs.

Many private funders are likely to be luke-warm to the 'no prior approval' principle in which they would not have the right to approve or disapprove research before it is made public.  Funders are held accountable by their stakeholders, and are under pressure to review outputs of research, such as white papers (persuasive documents issued by firms and governments) or supporting commissioned research. Yet prior approval is a slippery slope and clearly reduces research independence. Funders may be tempted to cherry pick (support publication of research conclusions that confirm the funder's particular point of view, and to dismiss conclusions that do not).  This blurs the fine line between consultancy and academic research.

Can you clone this?
Kristina Alexandersson
To be clear, the authors are not interested in taking money out of academia, but that funding be transparent. There should also not be an assumption that privately funded research is fundamentally compromised.  Adherences to ethical norms ensures that funding and research findings are independent of each other.  This would maintain high ethical standards and the unbiasedness of research, and increase the probability of the successful navigation of this ethical field.

Where does this leave us?  The letter was written with, "aspirations of reaching the highest ethical norms possible" for IP research.  There is little to quibble about this goal, but much do be done to put these aspirations into practice. As a community, the norms will help us avoid a Big IP hyperbole, and we can hope for independent research to continue to contribute to healthy debates in IP.

1 comment:

ex-examiner said...

Judging from my experiences in the UK Civil Service, Government policy has historically always been based on evidence. However, the usual practice was to decide policy first, and then get researchers to weed out the evidence that supported it, evidence to the contrary being ignored or suppressed. Human nature being what it is, and given the widespread use of spin, I doubt that things will have changed significantly, and whenever I hear officialdom asserting that "the figures show that...", I ponder on the undisclosed figures that might give a different view.

Unless you have access to the raw data, it is difficult to assess whether the conclusions of research are balanced or not, and there is the danger of applying principles that may be valid in the particular narrow field in which research was conducted, to other fields where conditions may be completely different.

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