Understanding and handling Conflicts of Interest (COIs) in scientific publishing
A conflict of interest (COI) can be described as a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. Alternately, a COI can be defined as:
a situation in which a person has a duty to more than one person or organization, but cannot do justice to the actual or potentially adverse interests of both parties.
COIs represent frequent challenges to the scientific publishing enterprise. This article explores the various problems posed by COIs in scientific publishing and how authors and journals can handle them.
The idealistic view
Idealists argue that science and research should be ‘pure’, free from any involvement (or taint) of financial influence. Data and results should speak for themselves. Research should be free from financial entanglements or associations that could possibly motivate researchers, authors and reviewers to favour (or be biased against) publication of papers. Such reasoning is welcome and helpful, but idealistic.
The ground reality
The reality about much scientific research and published literature is that authors, reviewers and editors do have involvement with products, pharmaceuticals, devices and protocols that benefit them financially.
Many research scientists work in an industry setting. As employees of such companies, they often are the best source of data and research on the very things they have invented. This situation is especially true when new, proprietary products are being developed. Independent researchers would not have access to data on such products or devices. In these situations, would financial involvement automatically discount any data coming from researchers with vested interests?
Flipping the coin once more, it is true that published articles with favourable results of new products, devices or drugs can make the difference in whether a product launches or is terminated. Disclosure of COIs helps readers determine author bias for themselves.
Sources of conflicts
Authors, editors and peer reviewers all may have commercial or financial associations which may pose or create a conflict with information presented in any submitted manuscript. Those associations are multi-faceted, and could take any of the following forms:
- Stock ownership
- Other equity interests
- Patent licensing arrangements
- Payment for conducting or publicising a study described in a manuscript
- Receipt of royalties
- Receiving grants
- Employment or association of a company
Not every association is a COI
Note that not every investment or financial involvement represents a COI. A researcher may hold stock or investments in divisional undertakings of the same enterprise involving fields completely unrelated to the ones pertaining to their research and publications. For example, it is highly unlikely that an investment in chocolate flavourings would be considered a COI for a scientist who researches and publishes articles on improvements in solar panel efficiency.
Journal requirements for COIs
Scientific journals generally accept that occasional COIs will exist and have developed policies on how to navigate them. Such policies aim to disclose commercial or financial involvements that authors may have with products, devices, pharmaceuticals etc. described in their submissions.
Journals will usually require a separate disclosure that asks for the following:
- Source of funds supporting the work
- Statement of financial interest (if any) of each author on the manuscript
- List of all the products, devices, pharmaceuticals etc. used in the study and included in the manuscript
- Disclosure (at the time of submission) of any commercial association or financial interest that may create a COI with the information presented
Journal handling of COIs
Editors and reviewers review the disclosures. If an author’s financial interest seems to bias the data and results, the journal may have mechanisms that require authors to work through the COI. If revised and accepted, the author’s financial disclosures are often published with the manuscript, thus making it a matter of public record. However, if a COI is insurmountable and reviewers determine the data in a submission is tainted by the COI, the paper will be rejected.
Equally important, journals ask their editors and reviewers to disclose financial involvements and to update those disclosures annually. If a reviewer discovers they have a COI with a manuscript assigned to them, those reviewers are required to recuse themselves from the review process.
Avoiding COIs as an author
As an author, disclosure and transparency are the watchwords of the process.
- Always read the information for authors (IFA) before you begin to write your research manuscript.
- If you are unclear how to disclose any COI, consult with the journal’s editorial office.
End note: Still an honour system
Disclosure of COIs remains a matter of integrity. Revealing financial interests for authors, editors and reviewers alike operates on the honour system. Although this can sometimes be a complex issue, we encourage authors not let fear of a COI deter you from conducting and publishing research. Instead, ensure that you always err on the side of transparency and full disclosure.
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