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Conflict of interest – Education needed!

A “Conflict of Interest (CoI)” is a very special situation of which we are usually reminded about when a famous scientist gets criticized – most often in connection to highly publicized areas of science such as CRISPR or Covid-19.

For many scientists in Academia, awareness about CoI issues is limited to what is found in the journals’ Instructions for Authors. For example, for the European Journal of Neuroscience it states:

“EJN requires that all authors disclose any potential sources of conflict of interest. Any interest or relationship, financial or otherwise, which might be perceived as influencing an author’s objectivity is considered a potential source of conflict of interest. The existence of a conflict of interest does not preclude publication in this journal. The absence of conflicts of interest should also be stated. It is the responsibility of the corresponding author to ensure this policy is adhered to.”

Those who would like to understand whether there is something to disclose will have to do some research of their own and search for relevant guidance. One credible source of information is the 2009 book “Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice” published by the Institute of Medicine.  Those who have time and patience to read its 392 pages will be equipped with all the essential knowledge and will understand how to judge whether there is a CoI or not:

“Conflicts of interest are defined as circumstances that create a risk that professional judgments or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest. Primary interests include promoting and protecting the integrity of research, the quality of medical education, and the welfare of patients. Secondary interests include not only financial interests—the focus of this report—but also other interests, such as the pursuit of professional advancement and recognition and the desire to do favors for friends, family, students, or colleagues. Conflict of interest policies typically focus on financial gain because it is relatively more objective, fungible, and quantifiable. Financial gain can therefore be more effectively and fairly regulated than other secondary interests.

The severity of a conflict of interest depends on (1) the likelihood that professional decisions made under the relevant circumstances would be unduly influenced by a secondary interest and (2) the seriousness of the harm or wrong that could result from such an influence. The likelihood of undue influence is affected by the value of the secondary interest, its duration and depth, and the extent of discretion that the individual has in making important decisions.”

Those who would search such books for quick guidance may find the following table to be useful: 

Table 1: Candidate List of Categories of Financial Relationships with Industry to be Disclosed

Research grants and contracts
Consulting agreements
Participation in speakers bureaus
Honoraria
Intellectual property, including patents, royalties, licensing fees
Stock, options, warrants, and other ownership (excepting general mutual funds)
Position with a company:
– Company governing boards
– Technical advisory committees, scientific advisory boards, and marketing panels
– Company employee or officer, full or part time
Authorship of publications prepared by others
Expert witness for a plaintiff or defendant
Other payments or financial relationships

Having such summary tables with examples are indeed very useful as they may support the decision making in some cases. Yet, one should not view such tables as checklists that include all potential examples and there is still the need to understand what may constitute a CoI and to treat every situation individually.

Indeed, the title of the table above focuses on relationships with industry and it may therefore lead to misunderstandings and confusion that these categories are relevant only for existing relationships with industry.

In a recent example, an academic discovery originated from research was funded by a non-profit patient advocacy group with apparently no industry involvement either at the time when a patent application was filed or at a later time point when a related scientific publication appeared. However, even in such a case, the author should have disclosed the existence of a patent application and inform the reader about a potential conflict of interest. This is why conflict of interest policies generally emphasize preventive measures such as transparent disclosures.

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