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The prevalence of funder efforts to suppress health behavior intervention trial findings

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“He who pays the piper calls the tune”: Researcher experiences of funder suppression of health behaviour intervention trial findings

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Background Governments commonly fund research with specific applications in mind. Such mechanisms may facilitate ‘research translation’ but funders may employ strategies that can also undermine the integrity of both science and government. We estimated the prevalence and investigated correlates of funder efforts to suppress health behaviour intervention trial findings. Methods Our sampling frame was lead or corresponding authors of papers (published 2007–2017) included in a Cochrane review, reporting findings from trials of interventions to improve nutrition, physical activity, sexual health, smoking, and substance use. Suppression events were based on a previous survey of public health academics. Participants answered questions concerning seven suppression events in their efforts to report the trial, e.g., [I was…] “asked to suppress certain findings as they were viewed as being unfavourable.” We also examined the association between information on study funder, geographical location, targeted health behaviour, country democracy rating and age of publication with reported suppression. Findings We received responses from 104 authors (50%) of 208 eligible trials, from North America (34%), Europe (33%), Oceania (17%), and other countries (16%). Eighteen percent reported at least one of the seven suppression events relating to the trial in question. The most commonly reported suppression event was funder(s) expressing reluctance to publish because they considered the results ‘unfavourable’ (9% reported). We found no strong associations with the subject of research, funding source, democracy, region, or year of publication. Conclusions One in five researchers in this global sample reported being pressured to delay, alter, or not publish the findings of health behaviour intervention trials. Regulation of funder and university practices, establishing study registries, and compulsory disclosure of funding conditions in scientific journals, are needed to protect the integrity of public-good research.

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