A disturbing 18 percent of researchers studying public health interventions report experiencing pressure to not publish, or otherwise alter, results that didn't match what funding agencies wanted. The nature of the study revealing this problem has left many questions unanswered, but the disturbing findings make a strong case for further research.
Dr Sam McCrabb of Australia's University of Newcastle and co-authors made the alarming discovery and decided it needed looking into. “In Australia, many government funding agreements require researchers to obtain funder approval to publish reports,” they report in PLOS ONE.
They also reference a UK case where a study showing that certain interventions did not cut alcohol abuse was delayed so the government could implement the same interventions.
McCrabb and colleagues hope to learn how widespread such abuses are. As McCrabb told IFLScience; “It's really hard to determine [how often efforts at suppression succeed]. What is suppressed is not published so we wouldn't know who to ask.” However, McCrabb saw an opportunity to at least learn about suppression attempts that succeed only partially or not at all.
As part of a larger survey of lead or corresponding authors of Cochrane review papers, considered the gold standard for medical research, McCrabb and colleagues asked for researchers' experiences. Respondents were given seven examples of possible funding agency interference and asked if any of them had occurred for that specific paper. All the papers in question were looking at the effectiveness of public health interventions, such as encouraging people to stop smoking or educating them about sexual health.
Only half those sent the survey responded, but among those who did 18 percent reported at least one instance of suppression. Nine percent replied yes to “Funder expressed reluctance for publication because they considered the results 'unfavorable'”. Others reported being asked to delay findings, for example until after an election, or were requested not to publicize their findings to specific groups. A couple even suffered attempts from their funding agency to discredit members of the research team.
A few previous studies have produced similar, or even worse, results, but these were restricted to specific countries, where McCrabbs' sample was international.
The questionnaire didn't explore what the funders objected to in the findings, nor whether the authors flatly refused the pressure, or made modifications to try to work around their objections. McCrabb told IFLScience those were both important issues to explore in future now the extent of the problem has been established.
McCrabb also told IFLScience that the team hadn't asked any questions of the 80 percent who didn't report interference. Presumably, in some cases, the results were what the funding agency hoped, while others were principled enough to accept that disappointing results need to be published. However, we know nothing about the balance between these.
Since the researchers are only at the beginning of identifying the problem, McCrabb said she doesn't have a full answer on how to address it. Nevertheless, she thinks it might help if agencies needed to report every study they fund, so people can notice those that never resulted in publication, and ask why.