Conflict of interests

From The Embassy of Good Science

Conflict of interests

What is this about?

Conflict of interests pertain to situations that involve a person or organization with multiple interests (personal, professional, financial…). Working towards one interest could involve conflict with others. Conflicts can be (1) financial or (2) non-financial.

1) Treating patients and working for a pharmaceutical company (or owning their shares) that produces medicine for the same group of patients is an example of financial conflict of interests. Be prescribing and promoting medicine that is produced by this pharmaceutical company, the treating doctor may receive some sort of direct financial comission or have the value of their shares increased.

2) Non-publication of negative results and zero relations and making biased hypotheses are among examples of non-financial conflict of interests.[1] Researchers who hide their negative results (to make their data clean or their results more noteworthy), or hypothesise in a manner to yield their prefered results could be seen as examples of non-financial conflict of interests.

It is important to note that conflict of interest includes the potential for conflict as well, and these should always be reported.

  1. Mohammad Hosseini & Bert Gordijn (2020): A review of the literature on ethical issues related to scientific authorship, Accountability in Research, DOI: 10.1080/08989621.2020.1750957

Why is this important?

Conflict of interests erodes objectivity of science and leads to corruption, and most certainly create a space for bias in decision making. Conflict of interest can happen in a variety of research areas and human activities, but when we take consequences into consideration, in some areas such as science and research it becomes especially important.[1] A recent review revealed that industry sponsored studies are more often in favour to the sponsors’ products compared with studies with other sources of funding.[2] Because of the effect it can potentially have on research, scientific journals require a separate declaration of conflict of interest when submitting scientific articles.[3]

  1. Resnik DB, Elmore SA. Conflict of Interest in Journal Peer Review: Toxicol Pathol. 2018 Feb;46(2):112-114. doi: 10.1177/0192623318754792. Epub 2018 Jan 30.
  2. Lundh A, Lexchin J, Mintzes B, Schroll JB, Bero L. Industry sponsorship and research outcome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;16(2).
  3. Ferris LE, Fletcher RH. Conflict of interest in peer-reviewed medical journals: the world association of medical editors position on a challenging problem. J Young Pharm. 2010;2(2):113-5.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

While some COIs might be inevitable (e.g. in case of scientists who move between academia, industry, and government), disclosure and providing extra information is believed to empower readers to place credence on presented data. [1]

Conflict of interests is explained in numerous guidelines . For example, Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has issued several guidelines for dealing with conflict of interest, from both reviewers’ and readers’ point of view. COPE guidelines for reviewers can be found here, and guidelines for readers can be accessed here.

International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) also addressed the issue of conflict of interest, and defined purposeful failure to disclose conflicts of interest as a form of misconduct. They categorize conflict of interest as following: financial relationships (such as consultancies, stock ownership or options, honorary payments, patents…), personal relationships or rivalries, academic competition, and intellectual beliefs. A more detailed ICMJE explanation and guide can be found here.

A separate ICMJE declaration of conflict of interest form can be accessed here. Completed ICMJE COI declaration is often a requirement for submitting an article to a scientific journal.

  1. Mohammad Hosseini & Bert Gordijn (2020): A review of the literature on ethical issues related to scientific authorship, Accountability in Research, DOI: 10.1080/08989621.2020.1750957

Other information