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Contemporary Concepts in Publishing

Research Funding and Disclosing Financial Relationships


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

June 2023

How is research funded?

Science requires a lot of money. Space to conduct experiments needs to be rented, and buildings are not cheap. Materials need to be purchased—test tubes, kits, pipettes, chemical reagents, and so forth—and all of it can add up over the course of a research project. Then there’s the big one: paying the researchers. It is rare for a principal investigator to work alone, and researchers’ salaries are often paid using grant money. Further, when the experiment is completed, papers need to be published, and the fees can reach thousands of dollars. A single project can rack up a considerable sum, but where does it all come from?

Research is funded through several different means, as listed below.

Governments — Governments actively promote research and development by allocating funds for many projects each year. This is done mainly through grant-providing agencies such as the National Science Foundation of the United States. Tax breaks, such as the R&D tax credit, are also used as incentives to assist with technical research. Governments generally support the scientific community in this way because private markets often lack the resources to produce foundational research at all levels. Further, individuals rarely receive all of the economic benefits from their discoveries or innovations, so there is little incentive for them to bear the costs and risks of research. Government grants are seen as investments to create long-term societal benefits.

Private companies — Corporate sponsorship has become increasingly common in recent years. Corporations have a vested interest in developing new technologies due to the potential profits that could come from such research. For example, a pharmaceutical company might finance a study comparing the effects of different drugs and use the results to develop more effective remedies. In fact, around 70% of all clinical trials are funded by industry in the United States, and an increasing amount of private funding is contributing to foundational research.

Nonprofits — Nonprofits usually focus on funding scientific research in a specific area. This often means developing cures for a certain disease, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. Funds come primarily from donations. For example, in 2022 the American Cancer Society raised $145 million for cancer research initiatives.

Researchers usually obtain money by applying for grants and committing to a project. However, seeking funding opportunities can be a long process between finding the right grant, filling out applications, and waiting for the final decision. The amount of of information to sort through when looking for funding can be overwhelming. Luckily, platforms such as Peeref have search engines specifically designed to help find grant information, which can help researchers find the support they need.

Why is it important to disclose financial support?

Bias is a hot topic in science, and it can manifest in many ways. Journal reviewers may be partial to certain researchers or topics. Research that presents negative results may not be published at all. Of course, the researchers themselves may present bias if they receive funding from a specific source. This is not to say that a financial relationship is clear evidence of tampered results or misleading conclusions. However, perception is sometimes more potent than reality, and speculation can happen upon any financial disclosure.

Funded by a private entity? The results must have been cherry-picked to increase profits. Funded by the government? The researchers only did it for the money. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? There must be some ulterior motive. There are a hundred different ways the community could spin it.

Even if bias is not present in the research, how the public perceives financial relationships can color their impression of the study. More importantly, if a financial relationship is not disclosed but is then discovered after the fact, then this can be a cause for concern in the scientific community. Questions will be raised about why such a disclosure was not made originally, and it could harm a study’s integrity and possibly lead to the negative effects of journal retraction. For example, the authors of several articles published in 2016 in Critical Reviews in Toxicology came under fire when it was discovered that one author had loose ties to Monsanto. In another case, a cancer researcher failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from drug and health care companies, leading to a fallout.

Understanding conflicts of interest

To avoid situations like the above, almost all journals require that the authors submit a conflicts of interest statement. This means disclosing whether any of the authors have any affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial or non-financial interest in the subject matter. This includes stock ownership, employment, personal relationships, and other affiliations.

Conflicts of interest statements are crucial to ensuring that research is transparent and fair. People are free to make their own judgments about what any disclosure means for the study, but the most important part is for authors to be truthful about any potential conflicts of interest because nondisclosure is seen as dubious at best, and criminal at worst.

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