A survey of public health researchers revealed that 18 per cent of respondents, at least on one occasion, felt pressured by funders of studies on topics such as nutrition, sexual health, physical activity and substance use. , to delay reporting, alter or not publish the results.
The survey, published on PLoS One1 and relaunched by Nature, involved 104 researchers from regions including North America, Europe and Oceania who conducted studies to evaluate behavioral interventions designed to improve public health outcomes.
These studies, published between 2007 and 2017, were cited in Cochrane reviews, which are considered the “gold standard” of evidence used to inform healthcare decision-making. Public health research has a history of lobbying from funders, so the team behind the study, led by Sam McCrabb of Newcastle University in Australia, expected researchers doing industry-funded studies to be the most they commonly act under duress. “But we haven’t found any cases of this,” he explained.
In the survey, researchers were asked whether they encountered various forms of “censorship,” ranging from requests to change research methods or alter the conclusions of a study to appeals to delay publication or not publish the results at all.
McCrabb and his co-authors found that respondents were more likely to report lobbying from funders belonging to government agencies than industry or charities or public research funding agencies.
They also found that pressures were more common in studies related to sexual health and substance use than in those related to nutrition and physical activity.
“Government agencies such as health departments may be more inclined to intervene if the results of a study they have commissioned are not what they expected or if they are heavily invested in health intervention – such as an education or health program – being tested,” explained Linda Bauld, researcher on public health issues for the University of Edinburgh.