Conflicts of interest in research
Scientists may often find themselves in circumstances whereby two or more competing personal and/or professional interests may produce the perception of, or actual increased risk of bias, prejudice or poor judgment. These circumstances are collectively referred to as conflicts of interest (COI) (UCSD, 2016).
COI are not intrinsically bad and are to be expected as in any other human endeavour. It is also acknowledged that COI more often than not, lead to unintended rather than deliberate bias. If, however, the potential for personal gain is considerable, the COI can determine significant breaches of the principles of RCR and amount to RM.
A common perception is that financial COIs (FCOI) are the main concern in science, potentially leading to research or even criminal misconduct. However, COI other than financial can also severely compromise RCR if not appropriately managed.
A COI is rarely a particular problem in itself. Rather, what is done with the conflict when it is not made apparent (i.e. disclosed), or when it is not properly assessed or managed, is of the essence. The correct and transparent handling of COI is therefore vital to ensure RCR and to allow all stakeholders to make informed judgments and evaluations on scientists’ work. Scientists also have a specific responsibility towards the general public and in this respect, perceived wrongdoing (often simply due to a lack of transparency and appropriate disclosure) can be just as damaging as actual misconduct.
OSR firmly discourages sponsored research agreements that call for unlimited restriction to the freedom of investigators to submit certain findings for publication. In fact, such limitations would lead to the suppression of data, and limitation of academic freedom. This freedom is obviously important to investigators, but also to patients participating or with a direct interest in a research project with the assumption that the data will contribute to medical progress and will be published in full and thus available for public scrutiny. In the case of industry-funded and/or IP-driven research a publication strategy is always agreed upon and implemented by balancing the legitimate aspiration for academic/research hospital institutions to publish the results of their research and potential commercial interests.
It is expected of OSR investigators engaged in peer-reviewing of manuscripts and/or grant applications to be exceptionally judicious and transparent, especially when there is a lack of clear and specific guidelines. Any potential COI, real or potentially perceivable as such, should be promptly discussed with the journal editor or funding agency, respectively. Similarly, OSR investigators involved in internal or external career advancement and recruitment committees, should immediately discuss any possible COI with the appropriate chairperson.