Scientists and universities may also have conflicts of interest.
Reports commissioned by organisations, companies or authorities often lack objectivity in the research.
Press releases from universities are intended to sell a story and should be treated critically.
Research is generally the most credible source of knowledge, and scientists have far greater credibility than many other experts chosen as media sources.
But scientists and universities may also have biases that favour a particular result or may exaggerate the validity or significance of a conclusion.
Pay particular attention if the research has been commissioned by interest groups, companies or authorities who may have played a role in the outcome.
This article is part of the guide 11 tips for journalists: How to avoid blunders when reporting on science. The guide is accessible in three formats:
Online articles regarding each of the 11 tips.
The full guide of 11 tips as a PDF-file.
The 11 tips as a checklist, a one-pager.
In 1999, the American biologist Tyrone Hayes discovered that the herbicide atrazine can cause malformations in frogs.
Hayes was on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, but his research was supported by USD 100,000 in funding from Syngenta, which manufactured atrazine.
A condition of the funding agreement specified that by sponsoring Hayes’ research, Syngenta owned his test results, which he was not permitted to publish.
Hayes terminated the collaboration, sought alternate sources of funding to continue his research, and finally published his study in 2002.
This illustrates why it is necessary to be particularly critical of scientific research commissioned by a stakeholder.
This type of report potentially aims to reach a specific conclusion. However, research published in scientific journals may also be biased by conflicts of interest.
The financing or funding of a study or other conflict of interest is stated at the end of the scientific article in the section titled ‘Conflict of interests’, ‘Competing interests’, ‘Role of the funding source’ or similar wording.
It has to state any potential conflict, for instance, if the scientists behind the article work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from the article.
Paid research can be reliable
It is far from a given that research is unreliable just because it is paid for by a foundation or a company. Most foundations provide grants without interfering in the research process.
But of course, the financing or funding can matter. For example, several studies have shown that studies on medication and treatment sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry conclude with more positive results than independent studies.
You should also be aware that even if a study has been conducted correctly, it does not prevent the university’s press department or the scientist from exaggerating the conclusion or perspectives of the new research.
Universities, research institutions and scientists all compete fiercely for grants and employment, and good media coverage helps.
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