Editorial Integrity and the Sponsorship Model

Some online publishers searching for alternative business models to the traditional one, where the readers pay for content, arrive at the sponsorship and advertising models, where private interests pay the publisher to make content available for free. This is in return for some benefit to the sponsor, which may involve a sponsor logo or pop-up integrated with the content, or an unobtrusive URL at the bottom of a page. There is no definite recipe.

The practice raises two issues immediately: the privacy of users, and the objectivity of the sponsored content. On the latter issue, in this month’s Condé Nast Portfolio Jeff VanDam writes an article called “Pharma’s Fees: How the big drugmakers tend to your doctor”, in which he lists seven of the international pharmaceutical giants and traces approximately $9 million they’ve spent supporting doctors’ research. He points out one example that illustrates the problem of objectivity in sponsored publishing. GlaxoSmithKline (makers of Paxil and Zantac) paid $150,752 to pediatric allergist Todd Mahr, who participated in a clinical trial for their anti-asthma drug, Advair Diskus. He subsequently “coauthored a 2006 paper that recommended Advair-style inhalers; footnotes in the paper refer readers to GSK’s website.”

Whether actual or perceived, the potential influence a paying sponsor has over the content it endorses challenges the essential advantage traditional publishers have over their Web-based colleagues: their reputation for authenticity established over years, the “brand” or covenant they have with their readers to publish the truth. Many readers take for granted that, prior to publication, “brand name” publishers put content that bears their imprimatur through an authenticating process that includes selection, peer review, editing, fact checking, permissions acquisition, and proofreading. The sponsorship model threatens to weaken this covenant with the readers.

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