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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2005

Funders Must Not Control Research

Loretta Czernis
At the end of 2004 CAUT launched its Freedom to Publish campaign based on the need to protect the freedom of academics to publish and disclose risks. This protection can only be achieved by negotiating appropriate language in collective agreements and by having senates adopt policies to refuse funds from research sponsors who insist on limiting the right to publish research findings.

Unfortunately some university policies are full of sentimental rhetoric but provide no real protection for academics. In fact, policies exist that restrict dissemination of research findings for unreasonably long periods of time and even indefinitely. This kind of suppression is justified by university officials with arguments that refer to short-term economic gain. However, in the long run, such actions are bad for our universities and bad for our society.

Consider for a moment the implications of suppressing commercially unfavorable research results. Did citizens benefit from disclosure by Nancy Olivieri and David Healy after failed attempts to silence them? Absolutely. Their example has been so significant it's influenced the medical profession. In December the American Medical Association passed a resolution that aims to end secrecy in research contracts with pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies. This move highlights the breadth of the problems for researchers.

Recently there has been a gradual and subtle erosion of our right to public disclosure of research results. This erosion continues because many of us are unaware of the weaknesses in our university policies.

The only justification for a delay in publishing is to allow for the filing of patents. Sixty days is sufficient for that purpose. There should be no limit on publication longer than this. Policies should be modified to reflect this more reasonable timeframe.

Restrictions on publication can be detrimental to academic careers, especially in rapidly advancing research areas. Strong language should be included in agreements reflecting the absolute right of academic staff to make their research findings public. It is also essential that researchers have a clear right to inform the scientific community, their research subjects, and the public of any risks to research participants or risks to the general public, or threats to the public interest that become known in the course of their research.

To fight for strong language means we must resist a fundamental cause of attempts to suppress publication, namely commercialization. This is a fight to protect the reputation of our universities with the public and to protect the integrity of our work.

Are we only self-interested players who will quietly accept codes of silence imposed by our administrations under pressure for corporate sponsors? Or will we do the right thing and strive for openness?