Google is paying university professors and researchers thousands of dollars to help sway public opinion and public policy.
The Wall Street Journal published an in-depth report this past week entitled “Paying Professors: Inside Google’s Academic Influence Campaign,” in which they state the internet giant pays anywhere from $5,000 to $400,000 and the paid-for research was often not disclosed in the finished products.
Many times newspapers will feature an editorial written by a writer who favors a certain corporation or product, and ethics state the writer should disclose if they have been paid by the company to write what they did.
However, the WSJ article featured several academics who wrote papers but did not mention they were paid by Google. Google Paying Professors Lots of Money to Promote Google For example, University of Illinois law professor Paul Heald received $18,830 from Google to publish a paper on copyright in 2012, but he didn’t mention his sponsor. His flippant response to the Journal for being outed for his unethical behavior was telling: “Oh, wow. No, I didn’t. That’s really bad. That’s purely oversight.”
The Journal found few disclosed their financial ties to Google after publishing papers in support.
“There is nothing wrong with companies like Google funding academic research,” said Jeffrey A. Winters, a professor of political economy at Northwestern University. “But scholars should disclose their sources of funding so that reviewers and readers can judge the content accordingly. Failure to disclose who or what funds research undermines our trust in scholarly independence.”
Corporations like Google fund professors and pundits and think tanks to promote whatever it is they need promoted to the public in the hopes that the public buys into the idea that the material is “objective” because it was written by an expert or academic.
“What matters is how tightly those controlling the purse strings try to control research results,” Winters told Chicago News. “The source of funding is not nearly as important as how free researchers are to publish whatever results they reach without interference from funders.”
The vast majority of research by academics is funded by foundations, government or corporations. Some foundations only fund research promoting free markets, others only fund human rights or environmental research. The Defense Department funds research in physics, engineering and even psychology related to war and security, and corporations fund research linked to their source of profits, Winters said.
“The challenge for scholars is to maintain independence and objectivity despite the agendas of those funding research,” Winters wrote in an email.
The WSJ reported that Google promotes the research papers to government officials, and sometimes pays travel expenses for professors to meet with congressional aides. Sometimes Google uses the information to deflect antitrust accusations against the company or promote their idea of internet privacy.
Google, of course, isn’t alone in this. Drug companies pay doctors to promote certain drugs, while tobacco companies for years paid for so-called research that minimized the link of smoking to cancer.
In its defense, Google said it is happy to work with universities and research institutes that support the principles of an open internet.
Google is everywhere on the internet. Its search engine handles more than 90 percent of online searches globally, the WSJ reported. It collects vast amounts of information on people.
This tech giant will pay professors to write papers that declare the collection of consumer data is a fair exchange for its free services and that it hasn’t unfairly quashed its competitors.
However, there are no professional standards on disclosing who your sponsors are in research papers, which are mostly published in law journals at universities, WSJ reported. The paper also mentioned that other big tech companies finance professors to write articles in their favor and against Google when they are involved in a dispute.
Winters said there are two checks on the system: 1. Peer review where quality journals send anonymous manuscripts to specialists in the field to get their assessment. 2. Transparency and disclosure on the part of scholars about who or what funded the research.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2012 was ready to charge Google with antitrust violations, including its practice of favoring its shopping and travel services in search results, and its law firm sent an 8-page letter of defense and attached Google-funded research papers supporting its arguments, WSJ reported.
So are academics lobbyists or scholars?
“A professor who receives funding for research should disclose the source of the funding,” said Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago. “On the other hand, professors often write things that do not constitute scholarship.”
By Jim Vail