Making the rounds of the internees in today’s news cycle is the revelation that Google has spent a huge number on funding educational research on areas such as IP, other, and anti-trust relevant open public policy topics. The news comes from the Campaign for Accountability report, “Google Academics, Inc.” published in May. Covered in depth by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, the story plot has been quickly picked up by the press round the world including today’s Times front web page, Business Insider, the Guardian, the BBC, and Wired.
It has prompted a reply by Google, and another response by the Campaign for Accountability. The tone of the discussion is just about cordial, and the primary question is whether academic independence has been compromised, and to what ends. The controversy stems around Google financing of academic research, the disclosure of that funding, the causing potential bias of research findings, and the utilization of such research in Google’s lobbying.
The report suggests that Google involvement had not been disclosed in 66% of indirectly funded papers and 26% of straight funded papers. 114 of the 329 papers determined by the survey as being Google-linked are categorized under a copyright and 38 as covering patents. An instant read suggests most of the academics are UK or US-based. Nearly all papers support Google’s position.
Google’s response to the report, published on Tuesday, is crucial of the report’s methodology as being too broad. In addition, it notes that industry financing of academic research is wide-spread. It highlights an extreme irony – the report itself will not disclose its own funding. This Fortune article suggests that the Campaign for Accountability’s work on Google (the Google Transparency Project) is at least part funded by Oracle. The Emperor may need new clothes. The known fact the story plot is creating such a splash is surprising, as technology companies, governments, and the creative industries have been funding academic research, or using academics as consultants, for some right time.
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It’s also always been controversial (e.g. as discussed in this 2008 Times Higher Eduction article.) As the WSJ article records, tech companies take into account all five of the top companies by global market value. Regulators and plan manufacturers are getting up with the impact of new technology still, this means it’s unlikely tech industry fascination with academic research will abate anytime soon.
The coverage in addition has criticized academics for sending drafts to Google through the writing process. While this opens the entranceway for the compromise of educational self-reliance, it is standard practice for a very good reason – it generates better research. I often send might work out for comment to non-academics.
Non-academics experts, who will tend to be in establishments where their expertise is relevant, can provide (surprise! Horror!) excellent, constructive opinions. It’s certainly saved me from some gaffes, improved my quarrels, and prepared me for further criticism. This type or kind of peer review, when it generally does not cross the series into editorial control, leads to raised research more grounded in reality.
The IP educational world is a little one, and I personally know researchers described in the survey and subsequent coverage. My own, entirely subjective, opinion is that there surely is not a calculated effort by the academics involved, nor the academic community, to obfuscate funding origins or serve as a guns-for-hire. However, that is not to state that researchers aren’t, or unconsciously consciously, immune system to the impact of funding.
Yet, as part of our professional remit, academics are anticipated to engage with industry and achieve research impact, within an environment where non-industry funding for academic research is not a lot of. To then criticize us for seeking funding from industry is a little rich. Finally, it is worth considering why a lot of academic research facilitates Google’s position. A general global craze of building up and growing IP privileges, at the behest of developed countries and self-interested industries generally, has been accompanied by educational critique and a push-back. Google’s own passions happen to be largely aligned with this critique. Whether Google’s enthusiasm for sustaining educational research will survive when educational research inevitably diverges from Google’s passions, remains to be observed.