(CN) — One in five health researchers report being pressured to change how they conduct or report their research, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. Some say they've been asked to delay releasing their results and even manipulated by funders to not release their studies at all.
“Knowing how often and in what circumstances the suppression of public health research occurs is important because of the potential impact of withholding, delaying, or misrepresenting findings,” lead study author Sam McCrabb and his team wrote. “This is acutely apparent in the Covid-19 pandemic, where delays in releasing early research findings in China allowed significant outbreaks to occur in other countries.”
McCrabb, a faculty member at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and his team surveyed 104 researchers around the world for their study, which found that the most common form of suppression was a funder “expressing reluctance to publish because they considered the results ‘unfavorable.’”
The researchers’ work focused on health behavioral intervention — nutrition, physical activity, sexual health and substance abuse prevention. Such research is typically funded by governments through national agencies such as the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. and the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia.
The notion of academic freedom is that researchers are free to conduct their work without interference or the threat of professional disadvantage. according to the study. But this academic integrity is increasingly undermined by “the influence of vested interests on research… calling into question whether public research institutions actually serve the public interest," according to the study.
Tasked with implementing intervention programs based on study findings, many funding agencies have a stake in the outcomes, which often leads to pressure on those conducting the research. Such pressure ranges from subtly expressed hopes for positive findings to “total suppression or censorship of reports for political advantage,” McCrabb and his team found.
The type and extent of the pressure varied by country, according to the study. Australian ecologists indicated those conducting research for government and industry faced higher rates of suppression than those working at universities. In Canada, one in four scientists reported being asked to omit certain findings from their reports, while 37% said they were prevented from responding to media inquiries. And researchers working in Europe had higher odds of reporting a suppression even than those working in the U.S., according to the study.
Surprisingly, the type of political system governing a country had little effect on whether research was restricted.
“Whether the publication came from a democratic country or not did not seem to change the odds of reporting suppression,” study authors found.
The study had limits. By relying entirely on published work, researchers whose findings were suppressed were excluded, while others may have been to scared to report pressure from funders. As a result, McCrabb and his team concluded the true prevalence of suppression is higher than what their results indicate.
“It is… likely that some authors would not disclose suppression events, even in the confidential context of a research study, fearing repercussions from the funder," the authors wrote.
They urged funding agencies to protect academic freedom by no longer requiring researchers to get approval before publishing their findings. Other suggestions included establishing a registry of studies and their funding sources and independent audits of research practices.
“Attention is urgently needed to protect the integrity of public health research from the influence of vested interests," the study authors wrote.
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