Conflicted about conflicts of interest?
The phrase “conflicts of interest” (COI) may bring to mind images of brown envelopes, but to bowdlerise Jessie J, “It’s not [all] about the money, money, money”. Nepotism and ideologies like Lysenkoism can also affect science, but most COIs are not so dramatic as Stalinist purges. Most people with a potential COI are well-meaning and may not consider themselves biased.
Confusion about COIs was apparent at the Committee on Publication Ethics’ (COPE) February forum webinar, the first to include COPE’s new institutional members. During the discussion of “Disclosed conflicts of interest,” the institutions were surprised to learn that journals saw authors and editors sharing an affiliation as a COI. They worried this would prevent researchers at the Editor-in-Chief’s institution from publishing in that journal.
“Seems like everybody's got a price I wonder how they sleep at night” – Jessie J, Price Tag
The journal representatives made clear that we have a process to manage such COIs: the conflicted editor removes themselves from handling and discussing the article, and another editor at the journal steps in. A lack of communication between journals and research institutions about basic issues of publication ethics has led to confusion, and COPE’s pilot to include institutional members is a great step forward.
Working at the same place, writing articles together, or knowing each other well are all conflicts that need to be declared and might prevent a researcher from being an editor or reviewer for that submission. In many cases, however, declaring these relationships won’t block publication or exclude someone from being a reviewer. The declaration helps the editor or the publisher make an informed decision and present the full picture to readers. The rule of thumb is: if in doubt, declare an interest or ask the journal about it.
At Hindawi we have long asked authors to declare “any possible conflict of interest.” Knowing that COIs can be in the eye of the beholder, we want to help our authors, editors and reviewers understand what we mean by this. To this end, we’ve recently updated our ethics policy to include details about what kind of conflicts of interest need declaring and we’ve added a guide to managing conflicts of interest. Journals don’t want a witch hunt – we want openness about interests outside research that might be seen to have an influence.
The text and images in this blog post are by Hindawi and are distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY).