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Examining the Difference Between Market, Medical, and Scientific Researchers


Larry Friedman, Ph.D.

Co-Editor, GreenBook Blog

The “Jonas Salk Middle School” is a few miles from my house. I remember being impressed the first time I saw it because local schools get named for someone who has had a major impact on the community or the world.  

It is appropriate for a school to be named after Salk. He discovered the first vaccine for Polio, which had ravished the United States and the world. His discovery literally saved millions.

I recently read that Salk never made a penny off the vaccine; he didn’t patent it and viewed it as a gift to the world. 

There are other schools around the world named after scientists like Einstein, Curie, and Pasteur. Einstein, ironically, was working in the Swiss Patent Office in 1905 when he wrote a series of papers that changed physics, including special relativity. He never patented any of it.  

I am unaware of any local schools named after a market researcher.  

Why is that?  

Commercial appeal

It isn’t that market researchers are bad people. Most are good people who are charitable and devote time to improving their communities.

I think the main reason you won’t find schools named after market researchers is that market research is fundamentally a commercial enterprise, unlike basic scientific research or medical research, which primarily aim to better mankind (and no, I am not idealizing scientific researchers; I have read too many academic satires by David Lodge for that).

Basic scientific/medical research is essentially an open process.  Anyone should be able to replicate your work after reading your report in a refereed journal. It is the job of editors and anonymous referees to make sure everything is on the up and up. In medical research, that is done commercially by pharma companies; the FDA ensures the methods used prove the new drug has the claimed benefits.

Protecting Assets

The commercial world of market research is not open because it is fundamentally about getting a commercial advantage. There is a veil of secrecy that is always kept up, either by clients or by market research companies. 

The best work I’ve done in my career for clients has been kept hidden so their competitors don’t find out. If I wanted to speak about it at a conference, I had to blind it so nobody really knew who I was speaking about, or what I really found.   

Market research companies gain commercial advantage by developing proprietary services. They don’t get a patent for them unless there is some technology involved.   In speaking or writing about them, critical components are kept hidden; otherwise, they could be ripped off. Clients don’t get the full story about validation the way a refereed science journal or the FDA would demand.

Therefore, the commercial world of market research is essentially a ”buyer beware” world. The overwhelming majority of market researchers I’ve met do their best, but at the end of the day, you never really know what you’re getting.  

Organizations like the ARF and MSI do yeoman’s work in getting the validation that only real openness can provide, but they only touch a small percentage of market research.

I’d love to see a local school named for a market researcher, but it will only happen for something they did outside of market research.

Larry Friedman, Ph.D., Co-Editor, GreenBook Blog, [email protected]

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