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Two studies on Coca-Cola’s lack of transparency in commercial research funding

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ByCrossFitJune 20, 2019

Two papers, one from 2018 and one from 2019, analyze the effectiveness of measures Coca-Cola has taken in an apparent effort to ensure transparency regarding the scientific research it funds. The latter, titled “Always Read the Small Print,” reveals how the industry subtly maintains control despite claims of transparency, and the former paints an even bleaker picture of commercial research. Together the papers reveal the abject failure of Coca-Cola’s transparency initiatives, the ubiquity of undeclared conflicts of interest among researchers with industry ties, and the ways in which the outcomes of scientific research may be shaped by an industry that seeks to benefit commercially from them.

The May 2019 paper by Sarah Steele et al., assesses the extent of influence Coca-Cola could have exerted over the research it has funded since 2010. The assessment used a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that revealed 87,013 pages of documents outlining research agreements and discussions between Coke and multiple academic institutions.

Steele et al. observe that in 2016, Coca-Cola publicly outlined four principles that researchers it funded were expected to adhere to. Researchers were:

  1. “expected to conduct research that is factual, transparent and designed objectively”;
  2. expected to have “full control of the study design, the execution and the collection, analysis and interpretation of the data”;
  3. “encouraged to publish”; and
  4. “expected to disclose their funding sources in all publications and public presentations of the data.” It added that the company did not “have the right to prevent the publication of research results” and that funding was not “conditioned on the outcome of the research.”

Note: The site on which these principles were posted is no longer accessible.

Steele et al. claim the contracts established between Coca-Cola and its funded researchers were generally aligned with these principles. They also claim researchers consistently provided funding acknowledgments (a finding at odds with those of the 2018 paper).

One area that was concerning for the authors of the 2019 paper, however, was an open-ended early termination provision present in most contracts, which allowed Coca-Cola to terminate research and require the return of all research materials without any specific cause, at any time, with no advance notice. Steele et al. argue this provision would have allowed Coca-Cola to exert “soft power” over researchers, who would be aware that their research program could be terminated if their funder was unhappy with their conduct or results. They conclude this power could sway researcher behavior and therefore represents a conflict of interest.

The March 2018 paper, by P. Matos Serôdio et al., assesses the effectiveness of Coca-Cola’s transparency lists by investigating the following four questions:

  1. Are Coca-Cola’s transparency lists complete?
  2. How many studies and authors are funded by the Coca-Cola brand?
  3. Which research topics and interventions are supported by Coca-Cola funding?
  4. Are Coca-Cola funded researchers declaring their links to the company in their publications?

To contextualize their study, Serôdio et al. cite a long history of “multinational companies manufacturing products harmful to health” and funding research “to prevent public health policies designed to counter the effects of their products.” They reference Big Tobacco’s initiatives and Coca-Cola’s own Global Energy Balance Network in their discussion of their motivations for analyzing Coke’s transparency from 2008 to 2016, the period for which they had data.

Serôdio et al. used the Web of Science Core Collection database and developed an algorithm to search funding statements and scrape metadata for their assessment of Coke’s influence and transparency.

Network analysis tools were used to map Coca-Cola’s research connections and evaluate whether they were disclosed by the company, researchers, or both. The authors explain:

The network analysis reveals that the researchers acknowledged by Coca-Cola, albeit occupying a central position in the graph, represent only a small subset of the universe of research reporting Coca-Cola funding, which involves 1496 different researchers (we assume not all grant recipients) and 12412 co-authorship ties, corresponding to 461 publications funded by the brand. … In other words, Coca-Cola’s transparency list appears to cover only a small portion of research in which the company is involved.

Serôdio et al. used structural topic modeling to find patterns in the research topics Coca-Cola funds. They found:

[T]opics converge on physical activity, energy intake, weight, diabetes, exercise and obesity, which are central themes in Coca-Cola’s effort to advance a research agenda able to counteract the link between sugar consumption and obesity by providing a secondary mechanism: the lack of physical activity leading to energy imbalance.

Serôdio et al. conclude, “Although Coca-Cola took a step towards transparency, our data have shown major gaps and errors in its disclosures of research funding: Coca-Cola has acknowledged only forty-two out of 513 potential investigators on grants awarded by the company.”

The authors of both papers highlight a number of weaknesses in Coca-Cola’s transparency initiatives. While Steele et al. offer a few suggestions to reform the broken system of industry funded-research (such as requiring funders to disclose a full list of terminated research projects), it is doubtful whether such steps could fully restore confidence in health research funded by an industry as marked by conflict of interests and dubious research practices as the beverage industry. As Serôdio et al. conclude, the “lack of transparency in an industry that has claimed to be fully open” has resulted in a “climate of distrust.” It is unclear whether further claims of reform and openness could mitigate that climate.

Comments on Two studies on Coca-Cola’s lack of transparency in commercial research funding

Comments 2

Clarke ReadJune 21st, 2019 at 4:13 am

The disappointing conclusion that follows from these two papers is the need for continuous enforcement and oversight, even when written provisions would be sufficient to preserve scientific integrity. Given the the evidence surrounding Coke’s scientific activities presented here, it’s impossible to distinguish between (1) well-meaning researchers who received money from Coke but were not influenced; (2) well-meaning researchers who WERE influenced - not by any formal assertion but by “softer” pressure; (3) bad actors (i.e., individuals abusing science to advance Coke’s ends). This doesn’t seem to be a problem that can be sustainably solved, and so long as that’s the case, we’re right to question any study funded directly or indirectly by industry no matter what contractual protections are in place.

Dan PalencharJune 25th, 2019 at 10:46 pm

Agreed, the methods used by Coca Cola stack the deck and essentially ensure only favorable findings are published (or at a minimum that unfavorable findings are avoided). The scientific method should be guided by objectively bolstering or refuting a hypothesis based on unbiased production and interpretation of quality data. It's particularly alarming Coke exerts control over both the design and analysis of the data. Those experienced in actually carrying out research can appreciate that controlling the design of an experiment is a great way to produce or avoid specific outcomes, or at least reduce the probability these occur. Furthermore, if you can then control the analysis of these findings they simply cannot be taken at face value. An important point that lies beneath this entire discussion is the issue of funding for scientific research in metabolic disease and human nutrition. Without adequate funding, researchers are forced to accept funding from sources like Coca-Cola which undeniably have skin in the game beyond simply finding out the facts. In the wake of rising health care costs associated with historic rates of obesity and metabolic disease, it makes financial and moral sense to make the health of the population a national priority that is funded accordingly.