Bought Sci­ence and the Cul­ture of Cor­rup­tion

Sci­ence is revered in mod­ern so­ci­ety, al­most like a re­li­gion. And as with re­li­gion, many peo­ple have blind faith in the power of sci­ence. When we read about stud­ies or re­search in the me­dia, many of us sim­ply be­lieve that what we’re read­ing is true. It’s based on sci­ence, af­ter all. Un­for­tu­nately, the sci­ence it’s based on might be bought sci­ence.

In gen­eral, our con­fi­dence in sci­ence is good. It’s a step to­ward a fu­ture where peo­ple hold be­liefs that are sup­ported by facts. And when peo­ple hold be­liefs sup­ported by facts, the world should be­come a bet­ter place. Less dis­crim­i­na­tion, less ha­tred, fewer in­ef­fec­tive prod­ucts and no more big pharma sell­ing snake oil in­stead of ef­fec­tive drugs.

Why There’s So Much Cor­rup­tion

So, why is there so much cor­rup­tion in the sci­en­tific world? As is so of­ten the case, it all comes down to money. All the stake­hold­ers in the in­dus­try want to earn more money. Even par­ties with no gen­uine in­ter­est in re­search can earn money by ex­ploit­ing the world’s ven­er­a­tion of sci­ence. Re­search in­sti­tutes, re­searchers, jour­nals, ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions and even gov­ern­ment all stand to ben­e­fit from bought sci­ence. Al­most any­one who wants in­crease their sales can do so by pay­ing to have a study yield the re­sults they want.

Re­search In­sti­tutes and Re­searchers

The most im­por­tant stake­hold­ers in re­search are prob­a­bly re­search in­sti­tutes such as uni­ver­si­ties. Most of these in­sti­tutes rely heav­ily on their rep­u­ta­tions to ob­tain fund­ing from large cor­po­ra­tions and the gov­ern­ment. And the best ways to earn a good rep­u­ta­tion in this arena are to em­ploy re­spected re­searchers and to pub­lish as many stud­ies as pos­si­ble. Re­gret­tably, this means that these in­sti­tutes are not al­ways in­ter­ested in the qual­ity of their re­searchers or re­search.

Sim­i­larly, re­searchers also want to earn more money. The best ways for them to do so are to work for pres­ti­gious re­search in­sti­tutes and write as many books as pos­si­ble. In or­der to be hired by one of these pres­ti­gious in­sti­tutes and to have their books pub­lished, re­searchers need to have ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tions. And the best way for a re­searcher to cre­ate an ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tion is to pub­lish as much of their re­search as they can. Pub­lish or per­ish, re­mem­ber? Again, this means that they are of­ten not con­cerned with the qual­ity of the re­search they pub­lish. It also means that many of them can be bought with of­fers of fund­ing.

Big Cor­po­ra­tions 

Of course, while we’re dis­cussing money we can’t ig­nore all the ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions try­ing to sell their lousy prod­ucts to the un­sus­pect­ing pub­lic. As al­ways, they also want to make money by sell­ing more of their prod­ucts. In or­der to in­crease sales, they fund re­search into their prod­ucts. This in­dus­try funded re­search is a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue, be­cause most of the time this type of re­search yields data to sup­port the use of the in­dus­try’s prod­uct.

An­other is­sue here is the sup­pres­sion of re­search re­sults, es­pe­cially clin­i­cal tri­als for drugs. Ba­si­cally, if the trial does­n’t give the re­sult the cor­po­ra­tion is look­ing for, they make sure that in­for­ma­tion never sees the light of day. This fund­ing is­n’t al­ways ob­vi­ous, as it does­n’t have to be made in cash. How of­ten is a new wing of a uni­ver­sity named af­ter a ma­jor cor­po­ra­tion or bil­lion­aire be­cause they paid for it?

Fake Jour­nals

All this cor­rup­tion has re­sulted in the birth of a morally bank­rupt new in­dus­try: fake aca­d­e­mic jour­nals. Some clever “busi­ness­men” saw the po­ten­tial to earn lots of money by ex­ploit­ing re­searchers’ need to pub­lish as many pa­pers as they can. So they cre­ated jour­nals that will pub­lish al­most any­thing for a fee.

These fake jour­nals look like peer re­viewed aca­d­e­mic pub­li­ca­tions, but they are most cer­tainly not. Re­searchers sim­ply pay the fee and their work is pub­lished. Com­puter sci­en­tists David Mazieres and Ed­die Kohler cre­ated a pa­per that just re­peats the same ten words (one of which is an ex­ple­tive) to send as a re­sponse to un­wanted emails from jour­nals. They were shocked when one of the jour­nals re­sponded with an email ac­cept­ing the pa­per and call­ing the pa­per “ex­cel­lent.” The jour­nal even of­fered to pub­lish it for $150!


Given all this cor­rup­tion and bought sci­ence, we can’t al­ways be­lieve what sci­ence tells us. For­tu­nately, there are ef­forts be­ing made to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion by or­ga­ni­za­tions such as The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and The Cen­ter for Ac­count­abil­ity in Sci­ence. Maybe we can even look for­ward to a fu­ture where we can be cer­tain sci­ence re­ally is sci­ence.


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