Here’s a strange thing, a seedy curio rather than a massive scandal, but I’d be interested to know what you make of it. This week lots of academics all received the same unsolicited marketing email from a large well known research company called Cyagen, who make transgenic mice, stem cells, and so on. The email was headed “Rewards for your publications”. In it, Cyagen make a rather strange offer: “We are giving away $100 or more in rewards for citing us in your publication!”.
The business model is very specific: if you cite them in an academic paper then you get $100, multiplied by the Impact Factor of the journal (a widely used measure of the journal’s influence). So if you cite them in the New England Journal of Medicine, which has an impact factor of 56, then you will receive $5600 from Cyagen. If you cite them in the British Medical Journal, you get $1700. And so on.
I would imagine that this is something journal editors will be interested in, and concerned by. We worry about “conflict of interest” a lot in science, and especially medicine: if someone has shares in a company, or receives money from it, and their publication discusses that company’s products, then this needs to be declared in the paper. If you get funding for a study then, again, you must declare it. If you have received payment for making an academic citation, then in my view this is clearly a source of funds that should be declared.
Looking at Cyagen’s webpage on their offer to pay academics for citations, it is clear that they have been offering this incentive for a long time. And looking at their citations page, I see they have a very long list of papers who have already cited them, 164 papers in total. I have read the most recent 5 papers to cite Cyagen, and none of them declare that they received payments to do so. To be clear, the payments are in the form of vouchers for Cyagen products, but I am not sure this is so different from any other source of funds, or payment: at best it is direct funding for research work, like any other source of industry funding that should be openly declared; but also, one cannot be sure how that financial contribution from Cyagen to an academic team’s overall budget was subsequently spent.
To be clear, I am not accusing any individual academic author of receiving funds from Cyagen, and failing to declare it. It is quite possible that the authors of these 164 specific papers have cited Cyagen without choosing to cash in on their incentive scheme. However, it is clear that Cyagen have been offering this incentive for a long time, because they discuss it on their page as if payment is commonplace. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that some of the researchers in the 164 papers listed on the link above have received funds from Cyagen, in exchange for an academic citation. The question, then, is: who? And did they declare it in the paper?
As I said, journal editors and publishers may want to investigate a situation where authors have received undisclosed funds in exchange for a citation. And anybody with some spare time, who is interested in a little productive procrastination on this Friday afternoon, may want to go through some or all of those 164 papers that Cyagen list as citing them, in order to see if any one of them has declared receiving money from the company. In a spirit of opennness, Cyagen may also wish to specify which authors they have paid for citations.
I assume that Cyagen regard this offer – ““We are giving away $100 or more in rewards for citing us in your publication!” – as unproblematic. I’ll be interested in other peoples’ views on it. Perhaps my gut reaction, that this feels dubious, is too puritanical. But I am certainly very surprised by the offer, and I’ve attached images of the pages where it is made, and the email, below, for the purposes of archive. [Update 17:05: and a clever person has scraped and archived Cyagen’s list of 164 citations here, in case it disappears.]
Thanks to the large number of people who forwarded the Cyagen email to me, on email and twitter, and Evan Harris for his thoughts on the topic.
Update 21:30, Cyagen have responded to concerns here.
Update 17/8. Is this offer evil, and should the income be declared?
Just briefly, I think the most interesting thing about this offer is the wide range of views on it. Some think it’s absolutely fine, no need to worry about the offer or declare the income. Some think it’s outright scandalous. I think it’s a seedy academic curio, but I do think the money should be declared, and I’ve been reflecting on why. I’m short of time, so this will be longer than I’d like.
It seems, despite Cyagen’s crass language, that by “citation” they are actually rewarding use of the brand name Cyagen, rather than requiring a citation of a specific Cyagen methods paper: if so, then this is paid product placement in an academic journal article, rather than trying to bump up the citations for a Cyagen paper. Some have said that scientists providing paid product placement for Cyagen isn’t an issue because it doesn’t affect the substance of the science, the results of an experiment. I can see the argument, but I think this is misguided, and the payment for mentioned Cyagen should be declared as for any other conflict of interest.
Here’s why. In medicine, you are asked to declare any financial income related to companies, products and services related to the work. This could be funding from a pharma company, paid promotional activity for a device company, the salary of a research nurse in your unit, shares in a company, free pills to use in your trial, patents you hold, and so on. There is a large literature showing the conflict of interest is associated with bias in research, but it’s not a guarantee of bias in any one case, and often it’s innoccuous. Declaring a conflict of interest doesn’t mean you’re corrupt. It is “a condition rather than a behaviour” as the bigwigs say. You always declare it, so we can all see it.
It took a very long time for journals and academics to accept the importance of declaring financial conflicts of interest. Along the way, various interest groups have tried to wriggle and argue that, hey, look, their particular specific financial incentive won’t really influence behaviour, so it shouldn’t really be declared. That’s why it is appropriate to have a single set of cultural norms: so that there is no wriggle room or ambiguity about declaring the big financial stuff, or the curios that might sometimes be salient. Cyagen, here, are offering a financial incentive to say something in an academic paper. That’s an unambiguous financial conflict of interest. I don’t think it is the worst thing in the world, but I do think it should be declared, because that’s what we do. Exceptions to the “declare when you’ve been paid money to say stuff” rule are not a good idea. Since Cyagen stand by their offer, I can’t really see why they – or those who’ve accepted their financial incentive – would even want a free pass to be excluded from the standard practice of declaring this kind of income, as under the normal rules. So in summary, my view is: it’s not evil, it is odd, it was expressed in extremely crass terms, and it should be declared.