Is academic research exactly what it seems?

Hardly a day passes without some academic institution issuing the results of research which are invariably presented in a way guaranteed to ensure they are picked up by the media – one issue of the Daily Mail earlier this year contained seven articles based on academic research.

This is probably inevitable as universities seek to put themselves in the limelight as they fight for students, as well as public and private funding – and they have PR departments that have to do something to justify their existence.

My concern is that media outlets usually carry this research without presenting any information about the researcher or asking if their research is promoting or reflecting any commercial interest.

The latest research to catch my eye was from Cornell University in the United States, which concluded that women who made dishes they saw prepared on cookery programmes by celebrity chefs were two dress sizes larger than those who did not.

The Daily Mail quoted Professor Brian Wansink, but did not tell us much about him. He is hardly a shrinking violet, openly saying that he advises the US government and a range of commercial interests including McDonalds – and he makes no secret of the fact that he can help companies save money by the way they present their food; and he can help help them sell more of the correct foods. His methods are controversial and rejected by those who advocate lots of government guidelines about content.

You may be convinced by what he says – or you may find yourself wondering whether there is a link between his interests and the research. Whatever the conclusion, my advice is to look at his activities before accepting his research.

Let me give you some other interesting examples. Recently there was some coverage of research by Rush University  which said home-made food is more likely to give you a heart attack than micro-waved meals.Those sort of conclusions should make you want to check if Rush University has any connection with the fast food industry.

And remember too that academics can have their own private companies. Dr Gavin Sandercock of Essex University produced research in a blaze of publicity which said that young people held back from exercise because they were worried about showering. He also runs a company called Fitmedia which specialises in children’s health and fitness.

And the University of West Scotland produced research that suggested that the health policy from the 1980s that we should eat less butter was based on faulty statistics.

It confirmed the views of the head of the research, one Zoe Harcombe, who sees obesity as the major health threat. She has also published a book – The Harcombe Diet: Stop Counting Calories and Start Losing Weight.

The continuity of academic research and commercial interest may be genuine: it may be coincidence; it may be the old human failing of structuring what we research to coincide with our views; or there might be other motives.

So, even though academics will bang on about the integrity of peer revies, dont take any academic research at face value. Always check whether the authors have any interests, commercial or political to peddle – and, if they are discreet about those interests, always wonder why.

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