Publishing

Scholars Cry Foul at Their Inclusion on List of Academics Paid by Google

July 12, 2017

This week an advocacy group published what it called a list of scholars who have received money from Google and who have written papers that supported its interests, sometimes without disclosing that apparent conflict of interest. Sarah T. Roberts said she doesn’t understand why she was on the list.

Sure, she told The Chronicle, she was a Google fellow in 2009, but that meant a $7,000 award to cover her expenses during a 10-week stint working in Washington, D.C., for the American Library Association.

Why that 2009 fellowship would be relevant to a 2015 paper on information privacy — in which Ms. Roberts, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, was listed as the fourth author — is not clear to her. More important, she said, she didn’t receive any money from the technology giant in connection to that paper. And if the advocacy group’s concern was that she had benefited from Google in the past, that information is on her curriculum vitae.

“I think it's pretty irresponsible.”
"What else would they like me to do?" she asked. "I think it’s pretty irresponsible."

Ms. Roberts is one of a handful of scholars who told The Chronicle on Wednesday that they felt the Campaign for Accountability, the group that issued the report, had included them unfairly in its list of academics who had received money from Google in connection to research that could be used to defend the company’s business practices.

The same data were partly used in a report by The Wall Street Journal that covered similar ground. The academics who spoke to The Chronicle said they felt their past or current connections to Google had been exaggerated or, in some cases, erroneously reported.

The scholars said they all favor public disclosure of who finances academics’ research, but they fear inaccurate listings, such as in the new report, undermine that goal. They also said their incorrect inclusion on the list could damage their reputations.

Sascha Meinrath, a professor of telecommunications at Pennsylvania State University whose name appears on the list twice, said in neither case had he or his co-authors received funding from Google, though he had obtained money from the company for other projects.

"It’s a real problem," Mr. Meinrath said. "It’s going to waste a lot of people’s time refuting verifiable falsehoods in this data set."

‘Highly Misleading’

In its report, released on Tuesday, the Campaign for Accountability said 329 papers published from 2005 to 2017 were "on public-policy matters of interest to Google that were in some way funded by the company."

The database lists the scholars’ names, the papers’ titles, the type of funding they received from Google, and, finally, if that funding was disclosed in the paper.

"Behind the scenes, however, Google has exercised an increasingly pernicious influence on academic research, paying millions of dollars each year to academics and scholars who produce papers that support its business and policy goals," the report says.

The same day, Leslie Miller, Google’s director of public policy, published a blog post that took aim at some of the report without mincing words. "The report is highly misleading," Ms. Miller wrote. "For example, the report attributes to Google any work that was supported by any organization to which we belong or have ever donated," such as the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

When presented with examples of professors who said they had been misrepresented, Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, wrote that the group had been "transparent about our methodology, and we have included links to all of our source materials." (That methodology includes searches of authors with known ties to Google, and keyword searches reviewed by an analyst.)

Ms. Miller also criticized the group as failing to identify its funding sources. Mr. Stevens told The Chronicle that the nonprofit group didn’t disclose its funders. The Wall Street Journal described the organization as "an advocacy group that has campaigned against Google and receives funds from Google’s rivals, including Oracle Corp."

Frustrated at Their Inclusion

Daniel Pemstein, an assistant professor of political science at North Dakota State University, said he had received money from Google and noted that fact in a paper listed in the database. But the Campaign for Accountability’s data say he failed to make that disclosure.

"The authors contributed equally to this work, which was supported, in part, by a Google Faculty Research Award," reads the first footnote in Mr. Pemstein’s paper.

Mr. Pemstein said that he was frustrated at the erroneous information, and had sent an email to the group seeking a correction. He added that he could be included on the list as a recipient of money from Google, but he wanted the data to accurately reflect his disclosure.

In some cases, professors said their work listed in the report had no ties to Google. One such academic is Aaron Perzanowski, a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University. His name appears three times in the database, though in an email to The Chronicle he said he had never received funding from Google.

"More importantly, none of my work is the result of conversations, promptings, or suggestions from Google, much less money," he wrote. "To suggest otherwise is to call into question my credibility and objectivity as a scholar, which I take very seriously."

Mr. Perzanowski’s inclusion appeared to be related to his co-author in all three cases: Jason M. Schultz, a professor of clinical law at New York University. But Mr. Schultz also denied that he had received outside funding in connection to the articles listed in the database. (The database lists him as being associated with several organizations that have received money from Google.)

"If the authors of this so-called ‘campaign’ had bothered to reach out to any of us before they recklessly published this online, I would have been happy to correct their facts," he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. "So I hope this leaves you and your readers wondering why they didn’t do so."

Annemarie Bridy, a law professor at the University of Idaho, said she had been listed in the database because she is an affiliated scholar with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University’s law school. The Campaign for Accountability says the center receives funding from Google, which, like Facebook and Microsoft, appears on the center’s list of donors. But Ms. Bridy said she doesn’t receive any money for her role.

"If I don’t have a financial link to the center," Ms. Bridy said, "then I don’t have a financial link to Google."

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.