Photo: Louie DouvisAustralian researchers have reaped hundreds of dollars in freebies from a company in exchange for mentioning its product in academic papers.
Researchers from the Lowy Cancer Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and the University of Queensland have referenced products by US-based cell culture manufacturer Cyagen.
The company, which produces transgenic mice embryos and stem cells, offers vouchers worth hundreds of dollars, redeeable of future purchases, if researchers mention their products.
University of New South Wales researchers were awarded a $650 credit voucher after mentioning the company’s name in a 2011 article published in Molecular and Cellular Biology.
The voucher was not disclosed.
A university spokesman said the researchers only became aware of the voucher after the paper was published, and used the voucher to pay for products in other unpublished research, he said.
They initially mentioned Cyagen as it was standard practice to mention suppliers in academic journals.
“There was no personal benefit to any individual researcher,” the spokesman said.
“Researchers have an obligation to use public funds in the most cost-effective manner and this includes taking advantage of discounts when they are offered,” he said.
One of the University of Queensland researchers who worked on a paper that cited Cyagen, Professor Carol Wicking, said she and her colleague were not responsible for using Cyagen.
“The UQ research did not use Cyagen products or services for this work and we did not receive any incentives from this company,” she said.
The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research states that an academic publication must disclose “all sources of financial and in-kind support for the research” and any potential conflicts of interest.
Fairfax Media does not suggest the academics’ research was influenced by the discount, nor is it suggested the academics improperly received or misspent funds from Cyagen.
Canberra University’s assistant professor, Dr Wendy Bonython, who sits on multiple research ethics committees and writes about academic integrity, said citing a service which offers inducements set a worrying precedent.
“If we’re starting at this thin edge of the wedge, where is it going to go next?”
Dr Bonython, who works in the university’s School of Law, said junior researchers and low-budget laboratories were more likely to be lured by freebies – a situation oozing an “unethical aroma”.
“This is not appropriate in an environment where you want to be making decisions based on individual verified tests, not commercial factors.”
“It risks the independence and integrity of research.”
Public health expert Dr Ken Harvey, who quit La Trobe University after it signed a deal with Swisse Wellness to fund a Complementary Medicine Research Centre in 2014, said he was not opposed to industry funding research.
However, all funding should be clearly disclosed on the paper or on the university’s website, he said.
“Transfers of value such as financial discounts for using Cyagen’s cell lines should be made publicly available.
“The concern is that this may impede consideration of alternative products which may be equally if not better,” the adjunct associate professor at Monash University’s department of epidemiology and preventive medicine said.