There is no unequivocal definition of commissioned research. Much of the research that is undertaken puts the interests of various users at the centre of attention and most research projects are carried out with funding from external sources. Does it make any difference whether the funding sources are private or public? What is the difference between research that takes general user needs as its point of departure as distinct from research based on contracts with particular users who foot the bill?

A report on commissioned research published by the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees discussed these issues (Kaiser et al. 2003). The report's definition of commissioned research emphasised four salient elements:

  1. Research financed mainly by clients as the external sources of funding;
  2. The client determines the theme of the research to be conducted and the attendant research problems, but not the approach and the methods;
  3. The findings are expected to benefit the client and other user groups specified by the client;
  4. The client retains certain rights to the use of the generated research results after project completion.

This definition remains valid and is wide enough to cover both research for innovation and marketing in industry and the private sector, as well as research generating evidence to inform public policy-making and implementation.

So-called programme research is a grey zone between research initiated by researchers and commissioned research in a narrow sense. Programme research means that certain themes are accorded priority over others and that money is allocated for that purpose in a defined programme. Such programmes imply an element of thematic control of the research agenda, but cannot be characterised as commissioned in a strict sense.

An important aspect of research ethics concerns the rights to the use of the findings that the client retains contractually after project completion. How exclusive may those rights be? Will exclusive rights for the clients preclude public access and insight into the research process and its results? If so, for how long? These are questions often raised in connection with the patenting of research results. Deferred publication pending the granting of patents may impede other research and weaken the interests of the public.

The basic values of research may be in jeopardy when research institutions are highly dependent on one client, e.g. a ministry. It might mean a risk that researchers 'internalise' the expectations of the clients and that the research process is unduly influenced. The researchers may thus be induced to discard alternative methods or the testing of alternative hypotheses.

The public and private sectors alike appear to assume similar attitudes in their roles as clients. Attempts at undue interference in the research process or in the concluding reporting generally occur when the purpose of research assignments is to inform political processes and decisions. The private sector is generally interested in research results of high international standards, but there are exceptions. For example, clients in pharmaceutical research is sometimes perceived to be bothersome. However, the main findings of the 2003 report was nevertheless that commissioned research as a rule does not compromise established quality criteria; commissioned research is better than its reputation.

Notwithstanding basically sound research ethics in commissioned research, challenges remain that warrant vigilance.
It is common to distinguish between three main phases in commissioned research: (a) inception; (b) implementation; and (c) dissemination.

The inception phase

An increasing number of research projects is subjected to tendering procedures, based on descriptions that define themes and research problems. Sometimes approach and methodology are also prescribed, even though such an obfuscation of roles is unacceptable in terms of research ethics. However, in order not to distort competition between various tenderers the text of the invitation to tender is fixed. Prior to the submission of tenders, only questions of clarification are allowed. The winner of the tender, judged by stipulated criteria such as competence, approach and method, have very limited opportunities to negotiate an adjustment of the assignment, purportedly because it would be tantamount to a violation of existing legislation and rules governing the procurement of services. This formalistic and rigid tendering regime involve problematic aspects of research ethics in terms of the respective roles of clients and tenderers.

A fair number of research institutions lacks good procedures and routines for entering into contracts with clients. This applies in particular to units at universities and university colleges, but also to some degree to the institute sector. Therefore, the Ministry of Knowledge has elaborated a standard contract for research and consultancies (see reference below). To the extent it is actually being used (it is entirely voluntary) the standard contract largely clarifies the relationship between the parties involved and can be adjusted to differing circumstances.

The overriding principle applies that commissioned research shall be conducted in accordance with recognised scientific and ethical standards, including academic freedom. This means inter alia that the clients cannot dictate to the researchers that the projects will lead to pre-determined conclusions or results. As a rule, the research findings should be made publicly available after the projects are concluded. Choice of method and approach to the research assignments shall be set out in their descriptions. The researchers shall ensure that scientific quality standards are upheld and that the assignments are conducted with ethical integrity. It is the right and the duty of the researchers to direct the assignments throughout their implementation.

The implementation phase

Disputes may also arise during the implementation phase, especially about the use of methods, interpretation and analysis of the data. The fact that a research project has been commissioned and paid for by a client who has defined its theme and research problems, does not mean that approach and methodology may be determined by the client as well. Scientific approach and choice of method are the prerogative of the researchers, the encroachment into which by the client is indefensible in terms of research ethics. Such a behaviour would jeopardise the independence of research and prevent the researchers from being entirely accountable and responsible for the findings.

It is always the responsibility of the researchers to ensure that a research assignment is conducted with adequate methods and data. While the clients determine theme and research problems, they have no right to interfere in scientific and professional assessments. It is important that the researchers maintain their independence vis-à-vis the clients and that this principle be set out clearly in the contract.

The dissemination phase

Like in the preceding phases, the dissemination phase may also produce conflicts after the research process itself has been concluded. Such disputes often centre on the publication of findings. Should the research reports be made publicly available at all? If so, who shall determine when to publish? Is it defensible in terms of research ethics to edit and amend the text of the reports? In what format, where and through what publication outlets should the findings be published? Who owns the results, and who holds the copyright to the reports? Disputes over these matters and other questions are often central in the dissemination phase.

A key question is what is being reported, how and to whom. The findings and the conclusions are the responsibility of the researchers, but some clients may attempt to influence the substance of the reports, often with the pretext of quality assurance. Some clients even try to prevent publication. However, the quality of reports that end up in a drawer cannot be ascertained adequately and violates the ethos of science (see Values of Research).

Publication of research findings is desirable for at least two significant reasons. First, important societal interests may be addressed that extend beyond the narrow purpose of the clients. The norm of compliance with the rules dictates that the researchers' ties of loyalty to the clients must be reduced and that the researchers' responsibility to society at large must be respected. Restraining the researchers in this regard would not accord with research ethics. Publication of research results and the opportunity for researchers to take part in public debates while drawing on their research insights serve their overarching ethical responsibility. Research results are, as a matter of principle, public goods.
Second, the publication of results is a critical means of quality assurance. A practice not acknowledging publication of findings as a main rule does not deserve the status and label of research. In other words, it is in the own interest of implementing research units to ensure adequate and appropriate publication of their research findings, precisely to assert their status as research institutions. The standard contract for research and consultancies stipulates the publication of research results as a main rule.

Concluding considerations

An important question is to what extent research in general ought to be commissioned. Would dependence on external clients lead to the deterioration of research quality over time? It seems reasonable to assume that increasing dependence on external funding sources is likely to be a source of concern in the research community. These issues are related to the increasing commercialisation of all research. When certain large clients become dominant in the research market (or segments of that market) to the extent that the entire research agenda and priorities are affected, it may threaten the independence of research. For example, recently critical voices have been raised about the commissioning of research by oil and gas actors in favour of fossil fuels to the detriment of research on renewable energy. Turning knowledge into a commodity on a market and increasing dependence on that market are trends that – if unchecked – may threaten the fundamental norms of research. It is important, therefore, that the commercial dependence of research, its impartiality and societal responsibility be subjected to continuous debate.