The Ethics of Pharmaceutical Research Funding: A Social Organization Approach

6 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2013 Last revised: 6 Feb 2014

See all articles by Garry Gray

Garry Gray

Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics


This paper advances a social organization approach to examining unethical behavior. While unethical behaviors may stem in part from failures in individual morality or psychological blind spots, they are both generated and performed through social interactions among individuals and groups. To illustrate the value of a social organization approach, a case study of a medical school professor’s first experience with pharmaceutical-company-sponsored research is provided in order to examine how funding arrangements can constrain research integrity. The case illustrates three significant ways that institutional corruption can occur in the research process. First, conflicts of norms between pharmaceutical companies, universities, and affiliated teaching hospitals can result in compromises and self-censorship. Second, normal behavior is shaped through routine interactions. Unethical behaviors can be (or can become) normal behaviors when they are produced and reproduced through a network of social interactions. Third, funding arrangements can create networks of dependency that structurally distort the independence of the academic researcher in favor of the funder’s interests. More broadly, the case study demonstrates how the social organization approach deepens our understanding of the practice of ethics.

Keywords: social organization approach, behavioral ethics, social norms, research integrity, public-private partnerships, industry sponsored research, academic freedom, conflicts of interest, self-censorship, institutional corruption, dependence corruption

Suggested Citation

Gray, Garry, The Ethics of Pharmaceutical Research Funding: A Social Organization Approach. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, Vol. 41, No. 3, 2013, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Garry Gray (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics ( email )

124 Mount Auburn Street
Suite 520N
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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