Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Google's Competitors Take a Swipe at Google's "Academic Influence Campaign"

The Campaign for Accountability (CA) has released a report on Google's "influence" on academic papers.  Notably, The Chronicle for Higher Education states that "The Campaign for Accountability" is funded by Google's competitors.  The Wall Street Journal has followed up with an article titled, "Paying Professors: Inside Google's Academic Influence Campaign -- company paid $5,000 to $400,000 for research supporting business practices that face regulatory scrutiny; a 'wish list' of topics."  The CA report notes that "the influence" extends to direct funding of work by researchers, or researchers who were affiliated with institutions that were receiving funding.  The CA report then states that 66% of the papers funded did not disclose Google funding and that 25% of the directly funded papers did not disclose Google funding.  The information underlying the CA report was apparently partially obtained through state Freedom of Information Act Requests from professors at public universities.  Thus, there may not be a full picture of Google's activities--"influence" at private institutions. 

Here are a few preliminary thoughts.  First, Google is not the only company that strategically acts to influence academic research in fields that impact it.  As the Wall Street Journal points out, this happens in many industries.  My guess is that Google's competitors are acting similarly.  They just may not be as good at it, haven't had the light shined on them, or not have as many academics with similarly aligned values.  But, again, that is a guess.  Second, my impression is that Google's actions seem aimed at "rewarding" or "encouraging" research that it likes--not so much that it is paying people to make specific findings or skew research results.  Google encouraging research by people who have values aligned with Google doesn't seem too nefarious. This doesn't seem to be the same as paying for skewed or specific (incorrect) findings.  Third, my guess is that it is highly irregular to disclose every funding source that an institution has with whom you may be publishing or presenting an article.  I don't know the details, but that likely makes the numbers in the CA report higher. 

Fourth, it is plausible that the 25% number of directly funded papers that did not disclose Google funding could be an "oversight."  Importantly, it is unclear from the report when the funding was provided for all of the papers--either before, while, or after the papers were written.  I am assuming that the Wall Street Journal is using the most "damning" examples in its article.  Notably, some professors appear to have been in communication with Google about their papers in draft.  The point that some professors want feedback from the entity who they are writing about or in the industry is a pretty good one.  A conscientious professor would want to make sure they are accurately representing the way a particular technology or system or company operates.  Fifth, my understanding is that it is not entirely clear what should be disclosed and not disclosed in papers concerning source of funding.  I am sure my institution receives money from many sources, and I've never believed that I had to disclose those funding sources.  And, if Google or any other company sponsored a conference I presented at, I wouldn't mention that as a matter of practice in a paper.  Moreover, I find it hard to believe that if I received funding from Google once (or twice) that in the future I must disclose that every time I take a position that may support a position Google may have.  Sixth, public/private partnerships are not unusual and private funding of research happens somewhat regularly.  Professors frequently consult with private companies.  Seventh, this CA report (and the press it is receiving) may lead academics and companies to be more careful about disclosing funding sources.  That may be a good thing--within some reasonable bounds. [Hat tip to Professor Caron's Tax Prof Blog for a link to the Chronicle of Higher Education article and the CA report.]

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