White Paper Sponsorship and Labeling
August 1, 2010 12 Comments
My friend Curt Monash has taken Oracle to task for the way it labels its web pages that contain download links for analyst reports, and I took some collateral damage in the process. It was embarrassing to me, but an important discussion, and I thought I ought to share some ideas about the whole issue. For example, I found that other vendor sites don’t always label white papers as sponsored either.
Some of my pieces are published by vendors who simply buy the rights to make available things I’ve posted here or elsewhere. Those are not “sponsored”; no discussion about what I will or will not say has taken place in advance, and there is no promise by me to write, or to pay by them. Other pieces are specifically commissioned from me, under editorial agreements I’ve described elsewhere. In brief, though – vendors get to check facts, but not dictate what I say. And they don’t buy comparisons, favorable or otherwise, to competitors – I don’t accept that kind of work for publication, at any price.
Here’s Curt’s language, directed at Oracle:
The analyst reports section of your website fails to distinguish between unsponsored and sponsored work.* That is a horrible ethical stumble. Fix it fast. Then put processes in place to ensure nothing that dishonest happens again for a good long time.
On the page Curt links to – where my report appears – Oracle simply says it has rights to distribute the reports in their entirety. That, as it happens, is important – technology research firms don’t like “out of context” quotes, and that is a situation that has occurred in the past with many vendors.
Oracle’s page has looked as it does for a long time, and I don’t know if anyone has ever suggested the change which Curt recommends to them. It’s a good idea. Calling them out publicly, without giving them an opportunity to do what one perceives to be the right thing, and in the process chiding them for an “ethical stumble” and being “dishonest”, is perhaps a less good idea. My own preference would be to call it to their attention privately. If I felt strongly about it, perhaps if they told me No and dismissed the idea I’d suggest I would go public. It doesn’t appear that Curt gave them that opportunity. Perhaps that’s because they are not clients (the post is about giving advice to non-clients) and he therefore didn’t feel he had a channel to do so.
You may have noted the asterisk in the quoted sentences. That is a footnote marker to a paragraph below which reads:
*Merv Adrian’s “report” listed high on that page is actually a sponsored white paper. That Merv himself screwed up by not labeling it clearly as such in no way exonerates Oracle. Besides, I’m sure Merv won’t soon repeat the error — but for Oracle, this represents a whole pattern of behavior.
Curt mitigates his statement that I screwed up here by suggesting I am likely to fix the problem. In a subsequent posting about the ethics of white papers, Curt reaffirmed his respect for me. He knew I planned to change my own labeling; we had communicated before he posted (although I didn’t know about his post in advance.) In that conversation, I acknowledged the oversight in my white paper template, and told him I planned to correct it. My readers know that I identify sponsors on this blog. I have requested that Oracle replace the copy of my piece on their site with one I provided that includes my acknowledgment of sponsorship.
Finally, in fairness, it also seemed reasonable to check out other listings. Other pieces on Oracle’s white paper pages (unlabeled as to sponsorship) are a mix of sponsored and unsponsored, whether internally noted as such or not.
- Several Gartner and Forrester reports do not indicate they are sponsored . To the best of my knowledge, none of them are.
- An Ovum Technology Audit report does not indicate whether it is sponsored. I don’t know if it is or not, but I assume not.
- IDC publishes some sponsored reports, and identifies the sponsorship immediately below the author’s name. One of the IDC reports is identified as sponsored; another is not, and I’m confident it is not.
- A Winter Corporation paper on the same page is identified both in the document design and within the body of the work as sponsored.
- A Martin Butler report, whose introduction is written by Martin Butler, but whose second part, about Oracle’s offering, is not labeled for authorship, does not indicate whether it was sponsored. I don’t know.
I looked at a few other vendor websites. I searched for pieces I wrote, and pieces I knew of from other analysts. Some sites mix papers in all over the place but don’t have a central place to find them all; in this, Oracle’s and EMC’s seemed very practical and useful. None of the sites I checked clearly identify the work as having been sponsored in any way I found obvious in my (admittefly) quick scan. So this is an issue, but it’s not confined to Oracle. Like me, most of the analysts or firms do identify sponsored pieces as such on their own web sites, and like me, many of them had not called out the sponsorship status within the document – though to their credit, some had. I’m not going to specify either group by name here.
The large firms tend to have policies and processes of some depth about such issues; I was involved in developing them at two research firms before becoming an independent. I missed a step here, and it’s been corrected. I thank Curt for his prodding, and I’m interested in the thoughts of the community. Should vendor sites provide clearer identification of sponsored papers, or is it sufficient to have that inside the papers themselves?