by Thomas Wailgum

IT Research, Brought to You By…

Mar 13, 20085 mins

Vendors and companies of all stripes sponsor the research projects of supposed independent analyst, academic and third-party organizations all the time. And by “sponsor,” I mean those tech vendors or otherwise interested companies that pay either part of costs of the research or, in some cases, pick up the whole tab.

But do you ever wonder about the research’s integrity? Do you care enough to go to the next page of that document or website and see just who was so interested in this topic or trend that they shelled out big bucks to enable this research project to take place?

I do. To be frank, I didn’t use to care that much. Sure, I might notice the sponsor from time to time and, perhaps, couch some of the research study’s findings, especially if I was going to include that data in an article and there might be the appearance of a possible conflict.

But now, I notice this all the time. I want to know who paid for it. It’s important. Two recent examples (and there are many, many more) of this practice caught my attention.

The first is brand-new IDC research about the “explosive growth of the digital universe” and the exponential growth of digital information in the world. In sum, all of us in the networked digital world created 281 exabytes (or 281 billion gigabytes) of information last year. Which is just an insane amount of data to manage. What’s scary is that the “digital universe” is growing 60 percent a year. (Full disclosure: IDC is a sister company to my publisher, CXO Media.)

Now, if a reader is to infer that he’s got a huge amount of data right now in his company and 60 percent more coming next year, then what might that reader need help with? Um, storage?

The sponsor of the research was none other than EMC, “the world’s leading developer and provider of information infrastructure technology and solutions that enable organizations of all sizes to transform the way they compete and create value from their information,” which is taken directly from the co-branded press release announcing IDC’s survey results that can be found on EMC’s website.

But there’s more. EMC Chairman, President and CEO Joe Tucci gets a quote in the press release. “As people’s digital footprints continue growing, so too will the responsibility of organizations for the privacy, protection, availability and reliability of that information,” he says. “The burden is on IT departments within organizations to address the risks and compliance rules around information misuse, data leakage and safeguarding against security breaches.”

I would be making the same point here if the sponsor was IBM, or Seagate or Samsung. And here’s where this study authors and sponsors deserve credit: There is no effort to deceive anybody with this press release announcing the results. It’s clear that IDC did the survey and EMC sponsored it. So does that make it any more or less legitimate? I don’t know the answer to that.

The second recent example of this trend is from a University of Arkansas study, released this week that found that radio frequency identification technologies (RFID) have been able to improve inventory accuracy for retailers. “A preliminary analysis of the effect of radio frequency identification on retail-inventory accuracy demonstrated that an automated, RFID-enabled inventory system improved accuracy by about 13 percent in test stores compared to control stores,” said the press release.

Look a little farther down the press release and you’ll see that the study was conducted at 16 Wal-Mart stores (eight test stores and a matching set of eight control stores). As I’ve covered in several previous articles on Wal-Mart’s RFID ambitions, the world’s biggest retailer has a lot at stake in the success of RFID programs as well as the development of new RFID technologies by vendors. Wal-Mart has invested a lot of time, money and effort in using RFID tags and systems to transform its supply chain and inventory controls, and cut costs.

The press release for the University of Arkansas study also notes that this investigation was “conducted by researchers in the RFID Research Center, a research unit of the Information Technology Research Institute in the Sam M. Walton College of Business.” That same Sam M. Walton who founded Wal-Mart. So while I’m not alleging anything improper about the tests or the legitimacy of the results, the nature of the relationship between the RFID Research Center and Wal-Mart (a big sponsor of the research) does raise an eyebrow.

“I get asked this question a lot,” says Bill Hardgrave, a professor of IS and director of the RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas. “Is Wal-Mart just buying this to sell their story and present these results?”

In a word, the answer is no, Hardgrave says. He says he takes the appearance of a potential conflict of interest seriously and approaches each research project in the same way. “We do research and report the results as we find them,” he says. With Wal-Mart, Hardgrave says that there is an upfront agreement that “what we find, we report on.”

“As someone who does research for a living,” Hardgrave says, “it would be a violation of every ethical code that permeates my being to fabricate results or report results that confirms only what the sponsor wants.”

I believe Hardgrave. And I believe that most companies know that they have to be transparent about their sponsorships to avoid any whiffs of “conflict of interest” these days. And I believe that the majority of companies aren’t out to deceive us with their research sponsorships—it’s just the way the big business of IT works.

So what do you think?