Increasing public access to scientific research has become an important target in many democracies over recent years. Both the researchers funded by government or taxpayer sourced money and the taxpayers themselves have advocated for more of the results to be published in places where members of the public can access and use the results free of charge. In the UK, for example, publications from research funded by the National Environment Research Council (NERC) must be ‘open access’ – freely available to the public (1). Elsewhere, the German Helmholtz Institutes have recently announced they will cancel subscriptions of journals from the company Elsevier in part due to lack of open access options (2).
These efforts are certainly having a clear effect on academic science; discussions of open access options are increasingly incorporated into how researchers decide where to publish their findings. However, even if every scientist working at a university with government funding published all of their papers with open access journals, this wouldn’t give the public access to all of the research and development taking place; in fact, it wouldn’t even be a majority.
It should come as no surprise at all that private business invests significantly in science, but I was personally shocked when I found out quite how much of it is privately funded. According to the OECD, an average of 60% of funding in the developed world comes from for-profit business (3), although this varies widely between countries (as low as 30% in Greece, but greater than 80% in Israel).
Does this privately funded research get published? I found it difficult to get decent statistics for the proportions, so I took a sample of data myself to test. I looked at the 87 papers published in the open access journal PloS One on June 30th 2017, and looked at the statement of conflicting interests to get a sense of which articles might have been funded by private institutes. In general, this is where authors would be obliged to list any conflicting financial interests, which broadly includes funding from commercial sources.
Of those 87 articles, only 8 had any conflicting interests (the data are available in a Google document (4)). Naturally, it may well be the case that the journal and sample set I used was not in any way representative, but it matches up with my experience working as an editor at Nature Geoscience; published science is dominated by research that isn’t funded by private institutions, even though they provide the bulk of the financing.
“Of course”, an intelligent reader would say, “the incentives are different in industry.” True enough; publications can often seem like a goal in themselves for researchers, but commercial enterprise has other objectives, not least of which is turning a profit. Sending your rivals a project for peer review would be a disastrous way of handing your secrets to competitors; holding onto data preserves the edge that a business works hard to create. Moreover, review and publishing take time, further eating into tight margins.
The possibility that more than half of scientific endeavour is never published does seem disheartening for those who believe that science as a human construct is a collaborative system. Are there any arguments that could persuade corporate interests to release their information into the public sphere?
It seems clear that only the most philanthropic of corporations would want to make their new findings freely available. Indeed, we shouldn’t expect this to change. However, old research or redundant data that no longer impacts corporate bottom lines could still be a benefit to other researchers, looking for alternative ideas or datasets. Consider a model like a pharmaceutical company with leftover stock of drugs that are past their patent expiry, and as such lower in commercial value. These drugs could be donated to countries unable to afford the brand new state-of-the-art drugs, which could certainly aid corporate image in the public consciousness. In such a scheme, data and results would not need to be formally written up, but even under such a ‘buyer-beware’ system, useful information might be gleaned.
Image conscious companies would naturally only make up a fraction of all industry R&D. A purely profit motivated organisation would need other incentives, but here government could step in. Government subsidy is an important part of many industries, and we might envision that a quid pro quo for subsidy assistance would be to expect that some proportion of the R&D conducted by such firms would be made publicly available.
Only a few days prior to this post (at the end of August 2017) the UK government announced that £140 million would be provided as subsidy to encourage collaboration between academia and industry in the life sciences (5). If results from this collaboration are not subject to the same requirements as other UK government funded research, it would seem extremely hypocritical.
The benefits of offering industry data up to the public are not limited to scientific research. If governments are interested in holding corporate entities accountable for their actions, the R&D research would be a useful place to check. The example making the rounds in the science-environment media at the moment is that Exxon Mobil researchers were well aware of the risks of climate change, but executives didn’t communicate the potential threat (6). We know now, too, that tobacco companies engaged in similar behaviour decades earlier.
In a similar fashion, increasing pressure is now placed upon pharmaceutical companies to publish the results of clinical trials (e.g. the All Trials organisation (7)). Naturally, pharmaceutical companies have looked to lobby against these changes. It need not be said that implementing changes to the way industry shares research findings at a broader scale would be just as difficult, if not impossible. Government oversight and corporate accountability are not strongly compatible with the current laissez-faire economic models. However, the scientists working at the bench aren’t so different between academia and industry; in both areas researchers benefit from access to prior work, and so perhaps is it incumbent upon the researchers themselves to push for this kind of data sharing.