The Smoking Gun - Is IP research the next tobacco scandal?

Making the rounds of the interwebs in the current news cycle is the revelation that Google has spent millions on funding academic research on areas such as IP, anti-trust and other relevant public policy topics. The news comes from the Campaign for Accountability report, "Google Academics, Inc." published in May. Covered in depth by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, the story has been quickly picked up by press around the world including today's Times front pageBusiness Insider, the Guardian, the BBC, and Wired. It has prompted a response by Google, and another response by the Campaign for Accountability. The tone of the discussion is just about cordial, and the main question is whether academic independence is being compromised, and to what ends.

The controversy stems around Google funding of academic research, disclosure of that funding, the resulting potential bias of research findings and the use of such research in Google's lobbying. The report suggests that Google involvement was not disclosed in 66% of indirectly funded papers and 26% of directly funded papers. 114 of the 329 papers identified by the report as being Google-linked are categorised under copyright, and 38 as covering patents. A quick read suggests most of the academics are UK or US-based. The majority of papers support Google's position. Worryingly, the report draws comparisons between this IP/antitrust research, and tobacco-industry funded academic research in the 1990s.

Google's response to the report, published Tuesday, is critical of the report's methodology as being too broad. It also notes that industry funding of academic research is widespread. It points out an extreme irony - the report itself does not disclose its own funding. This Fortune article suggest that the Campaign for Accountability's work on Google (the Google Transparency Project) is at least part funded by Oracle. (The investigative journalism by the WSJ does not suffer the same problem.) The Emperor may need new clothes.

The fact the story is creating such a splash is surprising, as technology companies, governments and the creative industries have been funding academic research, or using academics as consultants, for some time. It's also long been controversial (e.g. as discussed in this 2008 Times Higher Eduction article.) As the WSJ article notes, tech companies account for all five of the top companies by global market value. Regulators and policy makers are still catching up with the impact of new technologies, which means it's unlikely tech industry interest in academic research will abate anytime soon.

The coverage has also criticised academics for sending drafts to Google during the writing process. While this opens the door for the compromise of academic independence, it is standard practice for a very good reason - it creates better research. I often send my work out for comment to non-academics. Non-academics experts, who are likely to be in institutions where their expertise is relevant, can provide (shock! horror!) excellent, constructive feedback. It's certainly saved me from some gaffes, enhanced my arguments and prepared me for further criticism. This kind of peer review, when it does not cross the line into editorial control, leads to better research more grounded in reality.

Finding your way in a small IP world
Cat on a Map, orangebrompton (Flickr)
The IP academic world is a small one, and I personally know researchers mentioned in the report and subsequent coverage. My own, entirely subjective, opinion is that there is not a calculated effort by the academics in question, nor the academic community, to obfuscate funding origins or serve as guns-for-hire. However, that is not to say that researchers are not, consciously or unconsciously, immune to the influence of funding. Yet, as part of our professional remit, academics are expected to engage with industry and achieve research impact, in an environment where non-industry funding for academic research is very limited. To then criticise us for seeking funding from industry is a bit rich.

Finally, it is worth considering why a lot of academic research supports Google's position. A general global trend of strengthening and expanding IP rights, largely at the behest of developed countries and self-interested industries, has been accompanied by academic critique and a push-back. Google's own interests happen to be largely aligned with this critique. Whether Google's enthusiasm for sustaining academic research will survive when academic research inevitably diverges from Google's interests, remains to be seen.

Early last year, I covered the Open Letter on Ethical Norms in Intellectual Property Scholarship, which supports ten professional norms for good IP research ethics. Given the potential impact of academic research on policy and court cases, it's imperative that the IP research community uphold good ethical norms. This Google debate suggests we can do better.
The Smoking Gun - Is IP research the next tobacco scandal? The Smoking Gun - Is IP research the next tobacco scandal? Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Thursday, July 13, 2017 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Isn't it funny that one of the authors of the letter you cite is Mark Lemley, who seems keen to censor third-party behaviors but is clearly not that harsh when it comes to himself =)


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