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Should Scientists Declare Non-Financial Conflicts of Interest?

By Miriam Wiersma and Wendy Lipworth

Conflicts of interest are rife in scientific research, but non-financial conflicts of interest are often overlooked.

When the term “conflict of interest” arises in scientific research, often the first thing that springs to mind is the use of financial incentives by industry to unduly influence researchers.

This is not surprising given that a growing body of research has shown that studies funded by the pharmaceutical, tobacco, alcohol, food and beverage industries are more likely to have outcomes that favour the funder. While this is partly a result of the direct influence that these industries have over the design, conduct and dissemination of research (https://goo.gl/NnQ1ai), it is also believed to result from the effect that industry funding has over the attitudes and judgements of supposedly independent academic researchers.

For example, industry-funded researchers are more likely to place a positive “spin” on the results that they report. Researchers who are paid by industry are also more likely to give research-informed policy advice that is favourable to industry. Reports of financial ties between the sugar industry and UK public health scientists acting as obesity advisors to the government made international headlines in 2015, and were perceived by many as a deliberate attempt by the sugar industry to influence public health policy.

It’s widely accepted that financial interests require disclosure and careful management in scientific research, for example through recusal from particular roles. But there is far less clarity about how to think about and manage non-financial interests, such as religious beliefs, personal relationships or career aspirations. One context where these interests can come up is the question of whether they should be declared in a publication in a prestigious journal – often a respected and high-impact achievement for researchers.

Such non-financial interests are often dismissed as too complex and diverse to be managed, or are even defined out of existence. Others, however, counter that non-financial interests can and should be disclosed and managed, particularly given emerging evidence of their negative impact in areas such as systematic reviews and the equitable allocation of research funding.

Debates about this issue are complex and heated. When a former editor of The BMJ (the key journal of the British Medical Association) recently called for the routine declaration of religious beliefs as competing interests when publishing, the proposal was met with significant criticism from people who were concerned about the confusion and discrimination that might result.

So the question remains: should scientists be expected to declare non-financial conflict of interest in their grant applications, publications and presentations?

To answer this question it is first necessary to define what is meant by an “interest” and a “conflict of interest”. This is not straightforward, because many definitions of conflict of interest are used throughout the scientific literature, policy documents and in the disclosure forms that scientific journals ask authors to complete when they submit their academic research for publication.

One arguably straightforward way to define an “interest” is as a commitment to oneself or others that affects our attitudes, judgements and actions in particular social contexts. It would then follow that a conflict of interest occurs when an interest that is critical to the fulfilment of a particular social or professional role is undermined by the presence of another interest.

With this definition in mind, interests and conflicts of interest can clearly be both financial and non-financial. But even if we all agree about this, it does not necessarily follow that non-financial interests should be declared because such declarations can be difficult to interpret and manage.

It can be argued that despite these challenges, non-financial interests can and should be declared, but with a few crucial provisos. First, it is important to determine the circumstances in which such declarations are (and are not) necessary. Second, it is necessary to develop a framework to determine precisely which non-financial interests should be declared. And third, it is crucial to devise sensitive and nuanced ways of receiving and responding to such declarations.

These may appear to be overly ambitious goals given that some disagree with the declaration of non-financial conflicts of interest. However, it is clear that we are not only driven by financial gain, but rather by our beliefs, values and passions, our desire to please or succeed, and our relationships with others.

This leaves us with the following questions. Should scientists declare non-financial conflicts of interest? If so, which non-financial conflicts of interest should be declared?


Miriam Wiersma and Associate Professor Wendy Lipworth are with Sydney Health Ethics, The University of Sydney.