Edinburgh University embroiled in Google cash-for-papers claims

Google has spent millions funding academic research which is favourable to the technology giant, a public interest watchdog has claimed.

Google was found to have denied European consumers 'genuine choice'. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Google was found to have denied European consumers 'genuine choice'. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Scholars and academics were handed sponsorship cash to produce papers that supported Google’s business and its policy goals in an attempt to curry favour with and influence the public, the research by the US-based Campaign for Accountability (CfA) said.

It cited studies by academics at Edinburgh University and Oxford University among those receiving payment from Google, either directly or indirectly.

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The report stated: “While some individual papers offered criticisms of Google, the overwhelming majority tended to support the company’s policy or legal positions.”

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An in-depth examination by the Google Transparency Project identified 329 research papers published between 2005 and 2017 on public policy matters of interest to Google that were in some way funded by the company.

In more than half of those cases (54 per cent), academics were directly funded by Google, the watchdog said.

The remainder worked for, or were affiliated with, groups or institutions that were funded by Google.

In the majority of cases, readers of the papers would not have been aware of the corporate funding, and academics did not disclose the Google funding in two-thirds of cases (66%), according to the watchdog.

Authors failed to disclose funding even when they were directly funded by Google in more than a quarter (26 per cent) of cases, the CfA said.

The papers themselves centred on issues such as privacy and copyright.

The report added: “The 329 Google-funded articles that we identified were cited nearly 6,000 times in more than 4,700 unique articles.

“Overall, our analysis suggests that Google is using its sponsorship of academic research, not to advance knowledge and understanding, but as an extension of its public relations and influence machine.”

The Response

Google labelled the report “highly misleading”.

The technology giant has staunchly refuted the claims, describing the report as misleading because it includes any work supported by any organisation to which Google has ever donated money.

The tech giant’s director of public policy Leslie Miller said: “We run many research programs that provide funding and resources to the external research community.

“This helps public and private institutions pursue research on important topics in computer science, technology, and a wide range of public policy and legal issues.

“Our support for the principles underlying an open internet is shared by many academics and institutions who have a long history of undertaking research on these topics - across important areas like copyright, patents, and free expression.

“We provide support to help them undertake further research, and to raise awareness of their ideas.”.

In response to Google’s comments, CfA executive director Daniel Stevens said: “Whenever Google’s bad behaviour is exposed, it invariably points the finger at someone else.

“Instead of deflecting blame, Google should address its record of academic astroturfing, which puts it in the same league as Big Oil and Big Tobacco.

An Edinburgh University spokesman said: “As an internationally leading research university, our academics receive research funding from a variety of sources including government, charities and industry.

“In accordance with our rigorous academic processes, we seek to be transparent in detailing the origin of our research funding. Researching with industry partners is commonplace, supports translation of academic knowledge to improve the economy, and is encouraged by UK and Scottish government policy. We do not accept funding that is dependent on any pre-agreed research outcome.”