Hiding in plain sight

There must be more transparency and openness in research aided by scientific instrument makers, writes Carsten Bergenholtz, Sam MacAulay and Inge Seim

The Biologist 65(4) p6

Within academia and industry, scientific instruments are at the core of daily research activities. In recent years, various policies have been implemented to try to improve the reliability, reproducibility and transparency of scientific research, and to counter biases and the non-disclosure of important information in the pharmaceutical industry. But do we pay similar attention to the instruments upon which life science research is so often based?

The name of scientific instruments, and where they can be obtained, is traditionally mentioned in the ‘materials and methods’ sections of scientific articles. Having a product mentioned in a manuscript is not only useful information for researchers, but valuable marketing for the firms that manufacture the instruments[1]. To explore the relationship between academic researchers and the scientific instruments industry, we surveyed academic researchers in diverse fields in the US and EU to gain insights into how scientific instruments are perceived in published materials.

We found that academics discount the importance and reliability of information on instruments in papers co-authored by employees of scientific instrument firms, even when the firm’s instrument was not mentioned in a manuscript[2]. The differences were substantial and significant: academics do not merely distrust biomedical companies, as previous research has established, but also seem to be sceptical of research involving commercial instrument firms.

This result helps explain the reported behaviour of instrument firms, some of which circumvent this perceived reduced credibility by not allowing employees to be listed as co-authors, even when they contributed significantly to published work[1]. What we see emerging is a pattern of incentives likely to encourage the non-disclosure of contributions being made by instrument firms.

We have seen at least one commercial producer of transgenic mice offering researchers monetary rewards for citations in scientific articles[3], and scientific instrument firms promising significant discounts on instrument reagents in exchange for ‘excessive usage’ of an instrument name in scientific articles (CB and IS, personal observation).

Imagine a scenario where a researcher receives a 40% discount on an instrument, as well as substantial help with instrument calibration and data interpretation.The researcher intends to publish the study in a journal with high esteem in your field, and the manufacturer will cite the paper on its website for marketing purposes. Are these scenarios acceptable? Should the financial benefit or the firm’s involvement in generating and interpreting the data be disclosed? Should the firm’s employees be acknowledged as co-authors on the publication?

An informal analysis of the guidelines of 20 top journals in the natural sciences shows that such information is not required to be disclosed[4]. Since being affiliated with a instrument firm seems to influence how fellow academic researchers value the manuscript, the academic and the instrument maker have a shared incentive against disclosing such pertinent facts.

Editorial guidelines in peer-reviewed journals have helped tackle the non-disclosure challenge in other industries (in particular in medical and biopharmaceutical devices), and we argue it is time for similar public debate on how and when researchers should disclose the involvement of instrument firms in science.

References to instruments in papers are clearly valuable marketing materials for firms, and journal guidelines should take this into account. If one receives a discount, this needs to be disclosed.

If an industry-based scientist or technician has contributed to the use of the instrument, this should also be communicated. Not only is non-disclosure against the ethos of reliability, reproducibility and transparency in science, it also constitutes a hidden barrier to market entry for smaller scientific instruments firms. Thus, we urge journals to adjust their guidelines, academics and their societies to proactively disclose information about assistance, and readers to demand transparency.

Carsten Bergenholtz, associate professor, Department of Management, Aarhus University, Denmark; Sam MacAulay, senior lecturer, University of Technology Sydney, and Inge Seim, professor at the College of Life Sciences, Nanjing Normal University, China, & senior research fellow, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

1) Bergenholtz, C. Second‐Hand Signals: How and Why Firms Are Being Referenced in Scientific Publications. Eur. Manag. Rev. 11,159–171 (2014).
2) Bergenholtz, C. et al. Transparency on scientific instruments. EMBO Reports 19(6), e45853 (2018).
3) Goldacre, B. ‘So this company Cyagen is paying authors for citations in academic papers’. Badscience.net (2015, accessed 21 May 2018).
4) Bergenholtz, C. et al. A survey on information sources used by academic researchers to evaluate scientific instruments. BioRxiv, May 2018