Ethical integrity is essential to promoting a healthy collaborative environment among academics. Due to the information explosion of the digital age, it has become even more imperative that we do our part to encourage transparency, trust, and reliability in the research publication system. These qualities allow us to promote the efficient sharing of vital information to improve our understanding of various academic matters.
To that end, this article provides a quick overview of an author’s obligation to disclose any conflicts of interest and what pitfalls an author should avoid in order to retain the trust of publishers and fellow academics.
What is a conflict of interest?
Simply put, a conflict of interest arises when a person’s ability to act objectively is impaired. In the research publication world, we’re talking about both positive and negative influences on the validity of a research paper’s contents or the project’s findings.
Obvious sources of conflict stem from potential financial rewards or personal gains like career advantages and networking opportunities. However, even seemingly benign matters can raise flags regarding the integrity of a research project. For example, imagine a person who, without having any control over designing an experiment or influencing the supply of materials for a project, happens to be close friends with the project’s supplier and failed to disclose that fact. The project’s results could still be doubted. While there is no presumption of guilt and we know that this person had no control of the project’s decision-making process, failure to disclose potential conflicts of interest can trigger feelings of unease in other people. It fuels doubt when there needn’t be one. We wonder, “why didn’t the person simply say there was a personal connection? If the person were innocent, there would be nothing to hide.”
We admit a situation like our example would rarely raise any genuine ethical concerns since we highlighted the fact that the person did not control the decision-making process for the project. Additionally, even if a conflict of interest existed, it does not mean that anything unethical occurred. However, perception can strongly influence people. Therefore, researchers should carefully review applicable rules regarding the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.
Finally, for studies involving human subjects, it is important that participants are given the opportunity to make an informed decision when consenting to participate. Failure to disclose potential conflicts is gravely unethical.
What are your obligations to disclose?
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) recommends that journals have clear policies on handling conflicts of interest and where conflicting interests exist, they must be declared to editors who should then disclose relevant conflicts to readers. As a result, most journals require that you include a conflict of interest statement when you submit your manuscript for review. When in doubt, it is better to disclose and let the journal decide if the conflict is one that should be included with the publication of your article.
Examples of the types of relationships that might trigger a conflict of interest are described below in the section “Types of relationships that might trigger a potential conflict of interest.”
Information to include in a conflict of interest statement
- If NO conflict exists, include a clear statement to that effect in your cover letter and follow all instructions provided by your target journal.
- Suggested language for cover letter: “To the best of our knowledge, the named authors have no conflict of interest, financial or otherwise.”
- Suggested language for article footnotes: “All authors have [completed the XXX disclosure form] and declare that: (i) no support, financial or otherwise, has been received from any organization that may have an interest in the submitted work; and (ii) there are no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.
- NOTE: relevant institutional review boards (IRBs) will likely have specific language you should include in your manuscripts, please make sure to comply with those requirements.
- For clinical based studies, your manuscript should include a statement about whether you have disclosed any potential conflicts to study participants.
- Suggested language: Informed consent has been obtained from all patients included in this study.
- If a conflict exists, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends including the following information regarding the conflict:
 Sources of support for the work, including sponsor names along with explanations of the role of those sources if any in study design; collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; writing of the report; the decision to submit the report for publication; or a statement declaring that the supporting source had no such involvement; and
 Whether the authors had access to the study data, with an explanation of the nature and extent of access, including whether access is on-going.
 To support the above statements, editors may request that authors of a study sponsored by a funder with a proprietary or financial interest in the outcome sign a statement, such as “I had full access to all of the data in this study and I take complete responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.”
Suggested language: Author A receives research support/consulting fees from [sponsor name]; a detailed listing of Author A’s financial disclosures is available at [website]; Author B has equity in [organization] and serves on the board of directors [organization]; a detailed listing of Author B’s financial disclosures is available at [website]. No other author has reported a potential conflict of interest relevant to this article.
Types of relationships that might trigger a potential conflict of interest
The following is a list of conflicts that should be disclosed. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; rather we provide it to give researchers a sense of the type of information that may trigger concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
- Funding sources. identify the sponsor, the degree of support, and the role of such sponsor in the research process.
- Financial connections. These can include consultancy relationships, equity ownership employment contracts, other perks such as payments for travel and speaking engagements, and insurance fund investments (where the fund participant has some control over investment in certain financially interested companies). Identify the organization with whom a potential conflict arises and the extent of the connection/financial involvement.
- Amount of financial interest. Many journals and institutional review boards require disclosure of exact amounts of any financial support received. The financial support does not have to have been directly invested in the research project discussed in the manuscript. When a sponsor might be seen to have a vested interest in the outcome of a study, all financial contributions should be disclosed. Additionally, a statement that the financial contributions have been reviewed and approved by a conflict of interest or ethics committee would improve transparency and dispel doubts regarding the impact of the financial interest on the research project.
- Nonfinancial connections. This category can include personal connections (family, partnership, etc.), political connections, and academic relationship. Identify the source of the connection and the extent of the potential interest.