Link Buying Crimes vs Sponsored Scientific Research

A friend of mine sent me a link to The Kept University, a great article about how corporations are increasingly turning universities into cheap biased research labs.

Companies give researchers stock options for conducting research on product development, censor negative reviews, and see a much higher rate of positive reviews. They then use this research to try to push new products into the market. That is about a million times worse than something like PayPerPost, which recently saw many of their bloggers get their PageRank axed by Google.

In one way it makes Google's position seem absurd because many of the "best links" are simply a reflection of these hidden business deals by publishers and the advertisers with the largest profit margins. But you could also think of these types of relationships as a low risk source of clean links, and the type of relationship and reputation building tools needed to sustain profit margins in competitive marketplaces.

When you are new and small you can't afford to sponsor a school, but you can still offer to take a professor out to lunch or offer them free stuff to help build your credibility and push you into a market leading position.

You don't have to own the world to do well, just be a leader in a growing market and ride that growth curve. And if your field does not relate to a school it probably relates to some community or industry organization. And if those do not exist you could create one and build from there.

I am not suggesting that anyone pay people to lie about you, but that if Google doesn't like paid links maybe we should try to emulate how market leaders get and keep their leading market positions offline: pay to get your products in the hands of market leaders and (when possible) don't disclose the sponsored editorial transactions!

Excerpts from The Kept University:

In higher education today corporations not only sponsor a growing amount of research -- they frequently dictate the terms under which it is conducted. Professors, their image as unbiased truth-seekers notwithstanding, often own stock in the companies that fund their work. ...

In the summer of 1996 four researchers working on a study of calcium channel blockers -- frequently prescribed for high blood pressure -- quit in protest after their sponsor, Sandoz, removed passages from a draft manuscript highlighting the drugs' potential dangers, which include stroke and heart failure. ...

In 1996, while serving as a consultant to Microfibres, a Rhode Island company that produces nylon flock, Kern discovered evidence of a serious new lung disease among the company's employees. Upon learning that he planned to publish his findings, the company threatened to sue, citing a confidentiality agreement that forbade Kern to expose "trade secrets." ...

The New England Journal of Medicine warning that drugs like fen-phen could have potentially fatal side effects. But the same issue contained a commentary from two academic researchers that downplayed the health dangers of fen-phen . Both authors had served as paid consultants to the manufacturers and distributors of similar drugs -- connections that were not mentioned.

If everything becomes free then hidden costs will pop up everywhere. It is so much cleaner if it is all out in the open, but some people don't think of the alternative before trying to force their view of the world upon it. Cheers to the rise of paid content as free content becomes more polluted.

In a few years search engines will wish their problems were as simple as spotting paid links.

Published: November 30, 2007 by Aaron Wall in publishing & media


Tony Hung
November 30, 2007 - 1:00pm

Having worked in and around academic medicine for almost a decade now during training, I can say that at the place I've trained most medical students / residents / fellows are protected from much of these shennanigans.

Having said *that*, if you ever put one foot inside the world of medical research you'll get an inkling real quick of what the realities of it involve.

What I like to remind myself is that its an industry where some of its players (plural) are billion dollar entities; they will do whatever they can in their power (which is substantial) to make sure they get a good return on their investment (which is also substantial) -- which goes all the way to the research that "proves" that their "drug" is safe and efficacious all the way to making sure MD's "prefer" to prescribe said medication ... and patients "prefer" to ask their MDs to dole it out.

Tony Hung MD
Deep Jive Interests / Blog Herald.

November 30, 2007 - 1:33pm

Hi Tony
Thanks for commenting. I have been a big fan of your blog for a while now! It is amazing you find enough time to do so much blogging while dealing with all the medical stuff too.

November 30, 2007 - 3:15pm

I understand your point of view, but I also put myself in the Google engineers' shoes and I think they have a serious problem by trying to improve the search results without changing the philosophy that define the paid links as votes for the websites. The penalization of websites that sell links is really a desperate action of Google to try to stop the links trading, but I believe that, in the medium-term, what they will make is to change the way how they ranks the websites, in such a way that it don't depend so much of the links. It is not something easy, but I am sure the Google brilliant minds will be able to find an appropriate answer. Maybe the answer will include a Web 2.0 philosophy.

November 30, 2007 - 6:19pm

Something I've been wondering lately... With all these websites that have been penalized by Google for buying links. What's the difference between these links, and buying a featured link in a link directory? Or did those get penalized too?

November 30, 2007 - 6:52pm

Many directories got purged out of Google's index a few months back. You can determine the quality of a directory listing (at least in part) by using the tips listed on this page.

The main thing is check that the page you want to get a link from was cached by Google in the last month.

November 30, 2007 - 8:40pm

Thanks for the reply.

December 3, 2007 - 7:17pm

I was just going to comment on this issue on Matt's blog, since he went on a rant about paid posts being bad for personal brain surgery research. Really.

The irony is that most/all of the articles that he would prefer to see on the Google SERPS are researched, assembled and ghost written by pharma companies. Having worked with a number of clients in the medical field it's become more and more apparent that the "studies" published by well-known academics are most often based on research by the drug companies, scripted by a hired copywriter and given to the academic to sign off and publish under their byline.

This begs the question: what's more harmful, the illiterate drivel of a $10 Pay Per Poster or a biased supposed medical study published by a respected researcher? Obviously Google can't control what papers are published, but they shouldn't be pretending that restricting competing paid advertising practises is about returning better content.

December 4, 2007 - 9:29am

Great comment RKF
Society in general has largely decided to favor macro-parasites over micro-parasites. But I think this is only so because the macro-parasites are so good at hiding collateral damage / externalities.

A few examples:

  • genetically modified seeds that self destruct AND require using excessive fertilization (sold from the same company)
  • endless copyright extension for some companies that grew to influence due to leveraging content from the public domain
  • phone companies that got billions to upgrade Internet infrastructure and never did
  • health insurance covers most of the people most of the time and then they find workarounds to drop policies as soon as you start costing them any money
  • the drastic erosion of the value of the dollar due to spending hundreds of billions or trillions on the war on terrorism
  • GDP growth measurements that treat environmental damage as improved economic activity
  • and the list goes on...
December 12, 2007 - 3:43pm

Excellent post Aaron,

The tremendous ability of the Internet to allow tracking can be good or bad. Maybe some of my more aggressive marketing should be done offline...

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