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Between the Lines

June 11, 2014

It’s common for professors, particularly those in the sciences, to partner with private industry for research. But the ethics surrounding such partnerships demand that they be disclosed – at least for published research, with journal editors requiring academics to declare any possible conflicts of interest.  

But what about unfinished or informal research? And what about disciplines far from the biomedical research that has been subject to the most scrutiny and federal regulation about conflict of interest?

Disclosure standards for working papers and opinion pieces are at the heart of an ethics investigation by Temple University into two of its professors and their research in favor of – and funded by – the private prison industry. The professors, both economists with tenure and lengthy publication records, say they did disclose some details about their funding, and that additional information was available to anyone who asked. They also say that disclosure requirements for working papers, like theirs, are more fluid than those for final articles.

But critics of Simon Hakim and Erwin Blackstone say that academic research of any kind demands clear and immediate disclosure of possible conflicts of interest – especially in so politically, legally and morally murky a field as incarceration studies.

“Upon reading the study, I saw it didn’t have information on how they got their funding,” said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News magazine and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a national advocacy group for inmates. “Then the professors began putting out op-eds, basically taking a very biased position [in favor of private prisons]. And in most – all but one – they didn’t mention funding from the private prison industry.

“That’s what led me to file my ethics complaint,” on which the Temple investigation is based, Friedmann said.

Friedmann, who served time in a private prison several decades ago following felony convictions, said that a press release from Temple announcing the study last spring did say at the bottom that it was partially funded by industry. But it did not mention individual donors, and the information was not initially included in the report itself. (He said that complaints on his part prompted the authors to add a sentence later on disclosing their industry connection. The link to the report included in the press release no longer works.)

Friedmann, in an interview and in his complaint, said the disclosure in the news release alone was not sufficiently transparent, and that op-eds submitted by the professors to newspapers -- in states included in their research -- largely appeared without any mention of the funding.

The op-eds argue that private prisons offer significant cost savings.

“[We] recently examined government corrections data across 10 states, including Florida,” reads one op-ed, published without funding information, in the Sun Sentinel. “Although these public-private partnerships have been in existence for over 30 years and currently make up only 7 percent of the corrections market, we found that they generate 12.46 to 58.37 percent in long run savings without sacrificing the quality of services.”

The investigation was first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The professors told that newspaper that they had disclosed their sources of funding in the press release, and later in the paper itself. They also denied any financial stake in the private prison industry or other conflict of interest.

But Hakim and Blackstone also argued that they didn’t need to disclose funding information in a working paper, by its very definition.

"When it appears as a working paper, it is not final," Hakim said. "It is just for review purposes. A few weeks after, we made the disclosure that it was partially funded by the private prison industry."

As to whether or not they had submitted the funding information to newspapers along with their op-ed, the professors said they weren’t sure.

"We believe we did," Hakim said. "It's not that important."

Via email, Dan Liebman, editor of The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., said the information was not included with the professors’ submission. He said he had to ask about funding before deciding whether or not to publish the piece – which he eventually did, noting the potential conflict of interest.

On Tuesday, neither professor returned requests for comment. A university spokesman said that the ethics complaint was being investigated, but declined further comment, including as to whether or not the university requires professors to disclose funding sources that pose possible conflicts of interest for unofficial publications, such as working papers and op-eds.

Outside experts had mixed opinions.

Cary Nelson, professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the American Association of University Professors-sponsored Recommended Principles to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships, said that working papers distributed “by any means” should include full disclosure of funding sources.

“A working paper can circulate for years,” he said. “People will continue to read and cite it. It is disingenuous at best to suggest otherwise. The same ethical and professional standards about disclosing potential conflicts of interest apply.”

Nelson said the matter was also “critical” for op-eds, which reach wider audiences than academic papers and can “shape legislation, public opinion, and political debate.” (He said op-eds without disclosed funding sources have a “long and sordid” history, particularly those pertaining to tobacco use.)

But Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian and open-access publishing expert at the University of Colorado at Denver, was sympathetic to the professors, and said the criticism of their work should focus more on the soundness of their methodology and findings.

“I think the most important question here is ‘What does the data say?’ and not ‘Where did the researchers get their funding?’ ” Beall said. “Working papers are informal publications, often circulated with the goal of getting responses from other researchers before a final work is published.”

Beall said Friedmann’s comments and comparisons to the tobacco industry seemed like personal attacks that didn’t address the academic issues at stake.

Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, which along with two other private prison companies funded the Temple study, also said Friedmann’s criticism lacked teeth.

“To date, no one has pushed back on or taken to task the findings, or the validity of the research,” Owen said. “So [Friedmann] focuses on this issue of disclosure, which is in and of itself a false argument that he’s created.”

Owen reiterated that funding information had been included in the press release and said that “no level” of disclosure would satisfy Friedmann.

But Friedmann said he had additional, academic concerns about the study, including that it didn’t take into account external or eventual costs associated with private prisons. For example, he said, some research suggests that recidivism rates are higher among ex-convicts who have spent time at private prisons, costing more in the long run. Friedmann  said he lacks the sufficient academic credentials or background to investigate those matters himself, and that he hopes the Temple inquiry will focus in part on methodology.

Owen said his industry approached the Temple professors with the idea for the study, because there’s a dearth of current academic research on prison costs. He said the professors worked independently and considered government data only.

Rosemary L. Gido, editor of the Prison Journal, a peer-reviewed quarterly, and professor emerita of criminology and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, declined to comment on the case, citing her editorial position. But she forwarded a 2010 National Institute of Justice Journal article about private versus public prison costs. It found discrepancies in the findings of two cited studies based on who was doing the research -- although both studies found private prisons to be cheaper over all. However, the report also found that private prisons held more inmates annually, and concluded that measuring cost savings in the two different systems was "not a simple matter of arithmetic."

 

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