What Can You Believe: the worrying rise of academic corruption

NYT published an expose on how the sugar industry paid three Harvard scientist to write a review paper that minimize the link between sugar and heart disease, but instead shifted the blame on saturated fat and heart disease. That paper was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Academic Imperialism

I always felt that academic research exerted a huge influence on our daily life. Keynes once remarked:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

In fact, research in many practical disciplines other than economics influence people’s life. They shape the policy or even our choices. When we read nutrition research, we are likely to change our lifestyle for the better.

For the better, if research is right. Of course, I admit even sincerely honest research cannot be always right. After all, conclusions rely on noisy observations, and won’t be perfect. Hence, the perfectly rational way is to understand the imperfection of research and pool research conclusions together, and sort of “average” them out. Of course, we give more weight to research from prestigious journals or researchers from well-known institutions. That is what Bayes told us.

Academic Corruption

But, here is the rub.

Research is not honest. They are not just noisy. They are biased.

This is perfectly understandable. People conduct research, and when they face perverse incentive, their research is biased. Sadly, academic corruption is all too prevalent today.

Money

This is obvious. I am giving you money and you are expected to deliver certain results. NYT’s article is one such example. The documentary Inside Job discusses such corruption in Economics (note: The documentary’s depiction is not entirely accurate, but it is on to something.) The Flint water accident also reveals how good science was filtered out by money. The hero Edwards, remarked:

The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

Career

This might sound strange, but a researcher’s career might be in jeopardy if he refuses to cooperate. Consider this, you are a professor/PhD student in a business school. To do research, you need data. You go to a company for data. After much haggling, you get your data. Now you do the research. You found something bad about the company. Will you publish it? Even if the company has signed a contract with you that enable you to publish the research no matter what you find, you might still think twice. After all, you have a “reputation” to maintain. You need more than one paper for your career. Do you want to haggle with another company for data in the future and spend tons of time figuring out the details of that new company? (Empirically, not many people choose to do that. Most researchers focus narrowly in one subfield before getting tenure.) Furthermore, if other company know that you published something negative with the data you get from the previous company, will that company be happy to give you data? These considerations, render the disclosure rule useless.

On a sublter level, one needs to realize the power wielded by established researcher. They sit on grant committee (whether you have money to start research), and they sit on the editor board (whether you can publish your research to get tenure). The industry usually pay such established researcher to rubber stamp a paper (one often wonder how much work they did in the write up), and young researchers will be hesitant to challenge the “old guys”.

The Consequences

In the beginning I mentioned how a rational person will pool the research results, and weigh research from more established institutions and journals. The NYT expose sent a bad news. NEJM is a top journal, if not the top journal. It is a journal even I, who does not do research in this field, check often. Harvard is a pretty famous institution. Both combined, cannot withstand the power of money.

People might tell me things are getting better. We have better disclosure rules. Yet, I remain skeptical. I have seen perverse incentives under these disclosure rule (as I mentioned). I hesitate to cast a vote of confidence.

It is ultimately a game we play. The corporations (money), us the citizens, government, and researchers. People get outraged when they discover something awful, and they demand change. As it is true in banking regulations, change in rules can be circumvented. What is more awful, the money learns. They learn to change the game, instead of just playing the game. They learn how to prevent leakages (by making things such complicated and opaque), and they learn to prevent meaningful change (regulatory capture). I still remember one quote from a game theory class Jerry Green taught: “ many researchers are studying how players can change the structure of the game to improve what they can get out of the game. It is an interesting research question”. I agree, and yet I felt it is also a depressing research question.

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