Series on scientific integrity: part 3
You are commissioned by a company to investigate whether a drink provides energy. The results are without a shadow of a doubt: there is no connection between the drink and energy levels. However, you estimate that there is a good chance of follow-up assignments. Do you adapt your formulations in the journal so that you can stay in the race?
It wasn’t so long ago that Remco Havermans, professor occupying the endowed chair of Youth, Food and Health, scored a bullseye: he received 100 thousand euro from the Alpro Foundation, a platform that finances research into vegetable-based food. It is affiliated to the company of the same name that markets dairy replacement products, such as soya milk.
As it happens, Havermans, who works for the University College Venlo, was already in the midst of setting up research that fits in seamlessly with the foundation’s objectives. One of which is: motivating people to eat more plant-based food. This is exactly what Havermans’ study is about: making adolescents more open to fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts. To be achieved using social media, mainly Instagram, because this platform is popular among youths.
The UM researcher was invited to come for a chat. Or actually: for a discussion with nutritional scientists who work there on permanent contracts. “You might expect them to want to tailor my research proposal to the Alpro products, but that didn’t happen. The study had to be mainly feasible and yield something definite.”
A detailed time path was agreed, including the deadline for the first draft article, as well as regular consultations. “The latter also occurs when you receive a government subsidy from ZonMW. The difference now is that you sign a contract. This explicitly states that your findings will be published in a journal, regardless of its content. Also, that the researcher determines what is published, as well as the phrasing.”
Havermans would not know - assuming that there might be future assignments - how to play things out, which results would please Alpro the most. “If social media were to be proven an unsuitable means for enticing youths, then that is also a meaningful result.”
Can he imagine that researchers, in order to earn more money, would phrase negative results in such a way that they are more palatable? “Maybe by an open-ended phrasing in the final conclusions, but that is actually no good to anyone. A follow-up study would most likely show that the drink, as mentioned in the dilemma, still doesn’t have any effect.”
This is the first time that he has done research funded by a business. He did once before talk with a commercial party, but it never came to a collaboration. “I can’t say too much about that, but the question was if I would inspect and recommend the product. I made it quite clear that I couldn’t determine the results of a study beforehand. I never heard from them again.”
Commercial research is often a subject of discussion among colleagues. It is encouraged by the government, Havermans says, but at the same time, for the broader public, it reeks of ‘we from Toilet Duck recommend Toilet Duck’. “The scepticism is not undeserved, because research shows that a remarkable number of sponsored studies have favourable results for the customer. It isn’t always premeditated, but subconsciously. It is in lots of tiny decisions that you make during the set-up, the implementation, the analysis plan, to mention but a few. If these are all coloured, this will influence the final result.”
In the discussions with colleagues it is always about the question: how can you maintain your academic independence if you are paid by commercial parties? And how do you remain credible? “As a professor occupying an endowed chair, I regularly receive such comments too. ‘You are not independent, because a business consortium pays your salary.’ They are, among others, Scelta Mushrooms, the growers’ association ZON, and BASF Vegetable Seeds (seed improvement). And yes, they invest a lot of money into it, but they do not determine what I research, only that it concerns the improvement of healthy eating habits among youths.”
Together with the Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, Observant has drawn up six dilemmas that researchers may face. They will be published every other week in Observant.
The Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, which was set up in 2018, has set itself the objective to promote a healthy research culture at the UM. They do so by making researchers aware of the pitfalls and by starting a discussion on the subject.
For quite some time, PhD candidates have been able to involve a confidential adviser in cases of conflicts with colleagues, just like every researcher can do with the UM confidential adviser. Should the conflict touch on scientific integrity, a report will be filed with the Committee for Scientific Integrity. They have been investigating complaints of scientific misconduct since 2012. This was prompted, among others, by the Stapel Affair, in which a psychology professor from Tilburg was exposed as a fraud.