We need to talk about conflicts of interest (COIs) in scientific research. Specifically, we need to talk about the difference between COIs and research misconduct. There seems to be a misunderstanding in the media and public conversations that a COI is research misconduct. While a COI may lead a researcher to commit research misconduct, a COI is not, on its own, research misconduct.
What are conflicts of interest?
A COI is a situation in which a person has multiple competing interests, financial or other, that have the potential to compromise or bias their judgment or objectivity. COIs exist whether or not decisions are affected. COIs merely recognize the potential for wrongdoing based on conflicting motivations.
COIs are generally divided into two categories: intangible and tangible. Intangible COIs involve academic activities and scholarship, while tangible COIs involve financial relationships. Tangible COIs can include intellectual property rights, consulting fees, honoraria, gifts, ownership or royalties. Examples of intangible COIs are: delaying publication of a manuscript to benefit the next grant application, or a researcher’s bias in interpreting data towards his or her own hypothesis.
Different types of COIs have different potentials that can lead to bias. A free pen or a free sandwich provided at a seminar is not the same as funding a study, which is also not the same as covering a portion, or all, of a scientist’s salary.
What is scientific misconduct?
In the United States, the US Office of Science and Technology Policy has defined research misconduct as follows:
Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.
- Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
- Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.
- Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.
- Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.
In science, everything comes down to credibility. Research misconduct erodes trust between colleagues, between scientists and funding agencies, and between the institution of science and the public. Thus, research misconduct is taken very seriously within the scientific community. Consequences of research misconduct can range from retraction of papers to being banned from receiving funding, depending on the severity and scope of the misconduct. Being found guilty of research misconduct often marks the end of a scientist’s career, as seen by a severe decline in number of publications and funding after the misconduct.
What’s the difference between a conflict of interest and research misconduct?
While conflicts of interest may lead to research misconduct, they are not evidence of misconduct nor are conflicts of interest necessarily misconduct on their own. The presence of a COI may demand closer scrutiny of the research to determine if misconduct or bias affected the interpretation of the results. However, a COI itself is not research misconduct, nor does the existence of a COI automatically mean that research misconduct occurred. This is not to minimize the importance of the disclosure of COIs. It is this very transparency that allows us to identify problems, limit COIs and scrutinize research that may be biased. In science, credibility is our currency. Transparency and disclosure about conflicts of interest are critical to maintain our credibility.
Disclosing COIs makes us all better able to identify our own and others’ biases. This is why all US scientists at federally funded institutions disclose COIs and external activities. Each institution has an office that is devoted to reviewing COIs and implementing measures to help minimize these conflicts and their effect on research outcomes. Disclosure of COIs is taken very seriously. In fact, failure to disclose COIs is itself misconduct.
Disclosure is also important beyond the official institutional disclosure system. Typically, when scientists give presentations in our own university, at other institutions or at conferences, speakers include relevant COIs at the beginning and acknowledge funding sources at the end. Journals also have requirements about COI disclosure that must be met before publication. Failure to do so can result in retraction of a paper.
It’s also important to note that the presence of COIs, and even misconduct, does not necessarily negate the data. Determining if misconduct or bias occurred and if it invalidates the data is complicated and requires close scrutiny of the data and the specific situation.
A few examples from the archives of Retraction Watch help to illustrate how complex it is to sort out issues of COI, misconduct and data validity.
- In this example, authors forged the paperwork to add an author who did not contribute. This is a clear case of misconduct that resulted in a retraction, but the data is still valid.
- Research misconduct involving methodological flaws, fabricating data or other invalid manipulations of data would invalidate the data collected. In this case, a collaborator falsified data resulting in two retractions. This clearly invalidates the published data.
- Failure to disclose a COI is misconduct, but whether a paper is retracted or corrected depends on whether there are findings of additional misconduct. The examples listed on this link show the variety of ways that the failure to disclose COIs are handled.
- It’s also possible for there to be methodological flaws resulting from honest mistakes and errors that lead to retraction of a paper, but these are not considered misconduct.
There is often criticism that scientists do not take conflicts of interest seriously enough to appease the concerns of the lay public. However, this argument conflates COIs with research misconduct. The scientific community requires disclosure of COIs to help identify and monitor possible cases of misconduct. Awareness and disclosure of COIs allow the public and the scientific community to assess whether misconduct or bias occurred. Scientists are not generally penalized for the mere presence of COIs; they are penalized for research misconduct.
We need to stop automatically punishing scientists for having COIs. It’s not having a COI that’s a problem, it’s how COIs influence research that can become problematic. Let’s make sure we are judging the behavior of scientists, not based on just the existence of COIs, but based on how they act in the face of those conflicts.
This article originally appeared on The Sound of Science blog, and was published on the Biofortified Blog on 10 March 2016. At that time, we believed it was important to revisit a discussion of research ethics and to clarify what constitutes research misconduct and what does not due to the allegations of research fraud and misconduct raised against Dr. Federico Infascelli. We are republishing it in 2018 because these are still important concepts that both scientists and the public need to understand.