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Reporting Recipe: How to Investigate Professors’ Conflicts of Interest

Here are four kinds of stories you can do using ProPublica’s interactive database, Dollars for Profs.

María Hergueta, special to ProPublica

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When professors moonlight, the income may influence their research and policy views. Although most universities track this outside work, the records have rarely been accessible to the public, potentially obscuring conflicts of interests.

That changed last month when ProPublica launched Dollars for Profs, an interactive database that, for the first time ever, allows you to look up more than 37,000 faculty and staff disclosures from about 20 public universities and the National Institutes of Health.

We believe there are hundreds of stories in this database, and we hope to tell as many as possible. Already, we’ve revealed how the University of California’s weak monitoring of conflicts has allowed faculty members to underreport their outside income, potentially depriving the university of millions of dollars. In addition, using a database of NIH records, we found that health researchers have acknowledged a total of at least $188 million in financial conflicts of interest since 2012.

We hope journalists all over the country will look into the database and find more. Here are tips for local education reporters, college newspaper journalists and anyone else who wants to hold academia accountable on how to dig into the disclosures.

1. Dig into academic fields that are fraught with industry relationships.

We were able to collect records from about 20 public universities, as well as for NIH-funded researchers across public and private universities, hospitals and research centers. Our database includes records related to a wide range of outside funding, such as:

  • Founding companies or nonprofits;
  • Sitting on advisory and scientific boards of companies;
  • Assuming executive, managerial or board director roles;
  • Presenting research at industry workshops and conferences;
  • Participating in promotional talks for industry;
  • Consulting;
  • Testifying as expert witnesses;
  • Receiving industry research support;
  • Other outside employment.

All of these activities could potentially create conflicts of interest for faculty members, if their outside income relates to the same subject as their teaching or research.

Many large industries work closely with professors, who can leverage their academic prestige to help companies influence government policymaking, courts and the public. We’ve reported on how a group of health policy professors in California set up a consulting firm representing pharmaceutical companies, pushing studies that defend high drug prices. We looked at an elite group of economists who specialize in antitrust law and make more than a thousand dollars an hour advocating for corporate mergers. Lots of other industries frequently hire academics to help them pass laws or sell products.

How to report on this:

Using Dollars for Profs, you can search for a company to see its payments to professors and researchers. For example, you’ll find more than 100 disclosures related to pharmaceutical company Pfizer and 50 involving medical device maker Medtronic.

  • Dig into medical and health related conflicts. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies frequently turn to health professionals, including professors, to conduct research, develop innovations and, in some cases, advocate for products. Use our interactive database to find medical professors with high-value industry partnerships. Our data includes professors with PhDs, not only medical doctors. Look for professors who have consulting relationships and participate in speakers bureaus for companies. Review their research topics and findings and interview other experts in the field about whether industry ties may be influencing that research.

  • Take a look at gas and oil industry related conflicts. Whether related to oil exploration or hydraulic fracturing, gas and oil companies frequently work with geology and engineering professors to develop and research new technologies. In some cases, academic conflicts of interest with oil companies have attracted scrutiny. Search for engineering and geology professors in our database. Review their past disclosures in journal articles. Interview other experts in the field about their findings. If they teach at state universities, use public records requests to obtain their research agreements.

  • Look into the background of professors who work as expert witnesses. If you’re covering a public policy issue or a lawsuit, and a professor testifies before a court or a legislature, check if that professor may have a financial stake in the outcome. In their testimony, did they acknowledge, or were they asked about, any financial interest? If so, did they specify the amount of that interest? Look into their past history of testifying. Have they always taken the same side, no matter what the fact set?

  • Examine institutional academic conflicts. Sometimes conflicts of interest can encompass an academic department or even an entire university system. Universities frequently seek grants and gifts from companies to help support research and institutional growth. Depending on the terms, these financial relationships may affect the direction of research, potentially compromising the institution’s mission. Explore the royalties and other funding a university receives by licensing technology. Investigate philanthropic gifts to the institution or a particular department, and what if anything may be sought in return. Background university officials who also receive honoraria, equity, stock options, royalties or consulting payments from companies, or who sit on company boards.

Suggested reading:

Read our reporting on how a renowned scientist became an expert witness, helping alleged abusers avoid prison and regain custody of the babies they were accused of harming: “The Child Abuse Contrarian.”

Read about how health economics professors justified expensive Hepatitis C drugs: “Big Pharma Quietly Enlists Leading Professors to Justify $1,000-Per-Day Drugs.” In scholarly articles, blogs and conferences, these professors used their prestige to help pharmaceutical companies justify high drug prices, without always disclosing their corporate ties.

Check out how elite economists leveraged their academic prestige with secret reports justifying corporate mergers: “These Professors Make More Than a Thousand Bucks an Hour Peddling Mega-Mergers.” ProPublica found that their predictions were often wrong, and consumers paid the price.

2. Faculty may be underreporting their outside work, in violation of university rules.

Many universities require faculty to disclose all of their external activities, but we found that professors often fail to report all of their income-generating outside work. These omissions may violate not only university policy but also state or federal law.

With our Dollars for Profs interactive database, you can look up professors and other university staff to see what they disclose and cross-check their disclosures against other sources to uncover omissions.

How to report on this:

To find out if professors are underreporting their outside income or activities, research the university’s rules. Some universities have strict limits on how much a professor can earn from consulting or how many days a professor can work outside the university.

  • Compare the conflicts in Dollars for Profs with disclosures in journal articles. Find a professor in our database with significant outside activities. Look up his or her recent journal articles and inspect the disclosure statements, looking for gaps in reporting. Is the professor disclosing all of his or her conflicts in the articles? Is the professor more transparent with journals than with his or her own university?

  • Cross-check the disclosures in Dollars for Profs with federal data on consulting payments. Under federal law, pharmaceutical and medical device companies are required to report data on their payments to doctors for activities such as consulting and promotional speaking. Compare this data with what the medical researchers and professors declare to their universities, and check for discrepancies.

Suggested reading:

Take a look at our reporting on the University of California: “Medical Professors Are Supposed to Share Their Outside Income With the University of California. But Many Don’t.

Explore our interactive database, Dollars for Docs, which allows you to look up federal data on payments from pharmaceutical and medical device companies to doctors.

3. Outside conflicts may influence the findings of taxpayer-funded research.

Every year, the NIH provides more than $30 billion in grant funding to researchers at universities and other academic centers. To obtain funding, researchers must declare any conflicts of interests that could influence their research or findings. Since 2012, federally funded health researchers have reported more than 8,000 “significant” financial conflicts of interest worth at least $188 million, according to a database that ProPublica obtained through a records request.

How to report on this:

Using Dollars for Profs, you can look up the conflict of interest disclosures of NIH-funded researchers. We also provide the raw data in our Data Store.

  • Look at NIH-funded researchers who declare conflicts of interests with high values. In our data, we found a significant number of researchers whose financial relationships were worth more than $600,000, which was the highest range of disclosure. Many of these conflicts reflected equity stakes in or patents licensed to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. The companies range from small startups to pharmaceutical conglomerates, like Eli Lilly and Co. and Novartis. Investigate what kind of relationships the university researchers have with the companies. Are the profits that professors earn influencing their government-funded research?

  • Dig into researchers who declare that their conflicts have no value. For nearly half of the conflicts listed in the data from the NIH, the university or research center declared that it could not determine the value of a researcher’s outside financial interest. Many of the non-valued conflicts involved ownership stakes in privately held companies, which can be difficult to measure. But for some without stated values, we were able to use public records to calculate how much the outside commitments were worth. Which high-profile researchers state that their outside income cannot be calculated, and why? Can you use public records to calculate the values of their conflicts?

  • Look at a university with an unusually large or small number of disclosures. Most of the researchers that declared conflicts of interest work for universities. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison filed 1,015 disclosures since 2012 — the most of any institution. Find out if the conflicts are concentrated in a particular department or field, or whether one company accounts for a disproportionate number. Just because an institution files a large number of disclosures does not necessarily indicate it has the most conflicts. Some institutions may be underreporting the conflicts of their professors. Look for institutions that receive a lot of NIH funding but report relatively few conflicts of interests.

Suggested reading:

Dive into our data analysis that we conducted using a database of conflicts from the National Institutes of Health: “Federally Funded Health Researchers Disclose at Least $188 Million in Conflicts of Interest. Can You Trust Their Findings?

4. Don’t see a professor in your database? Send out your own public records requests.

For this project, we filed a records request with at least one public university in every state. About 30 states denied our requests for disclosure records. Just because you’re unable to find a professor’s disclosures in Dollars for Profs doesn’t mean the records don’t exist. Some state universities may release records for individual professors, even if they denied our request for their full database of disclosures.

How to report on this:

All states have laws that allow the public to access government records, data and documents. And nearly all state universities are subject to these records laws, although they often withhold documents on the basis of exceptions, such as privacy or personnel record restrictions.

  • Research the university’s disclosure requirements. We found varying levels of disclosure requirements across universities. All universities and research institutions, public or private, are required by federal law to collect information on conflicts of interests of faculty who receive research funding from the NIH or other public health agencies. Many universities also collect disclosures on the outside employment of their staff, regardless of whether their activities are directly related to their research. Find out which university office collects conflict of interest disclosure forms. Ask for copies of the required forms or find them online. The forms can help you understand what information the university collects so you know which specific records to request. Interview the university’s public records officer or general counsel about the disclosure requirements and how potential conflicts are reviewed and monitored.

  • Learn about the state’s public records laws to find out what the university is required to disclose. Unlike private institutions, state universities are subject to public records laws. As a result, in some states, conflict of interest disclosure forms may be accessible under those laws. But many other state universities may deny a request on the grounds that disclosure forms are part of a staff member’s personnel file. Consult with local open records advocacy groups to learn if the refusal is indeed rooted in law or precedent, and consider challenging any questionable denials.

  • File a records request for an individual professor’s disclosure forms. Before you file a records request, it’s always good practice to try to obtain the records without going through the official request process. Speak with public records officers and informally request the documents, or ask for them from the professor directly. If a university will not release disclosure records voluntarily, file a formal request. The National Freedom of Information Coalition has templates for requests in every state. When you request disclosure forms, be specific about which files or data you would like to receive.

  • Interview faculty members about their disclosures. After you receive the records, contact the professors whose forms you have collected and ask them about their filings. Be open in your conversations with faculty. If professors are disclosing their conflicts, they are most likely abiding by academic ethics and following the university’s rules. Importantly, a conflict of interest does not necessarily indicate bias in research.

Suggested reading:

Check out our story on how we assembled our state-by-state database of professors’ outside income and employment using public records laws: “We Asked Public Universities for Their Professors’ Conflicts of Interest — and Got the Runaround.”

Journalists, We’re Sharing Resources About Academic Conflicts of Interest. Want to Learn More?

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