Conflicts of Interest
Public trust in the scientific process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how transparently conflicts of interest are handled during the planning, implementation, writing, peer review, editing, and publication of scientific work.
A conflict of interest exists when professional judgment concerning a primary interest (such as patients' welfare or the validity of research) may be influenced by a secondary interest (such as financial gain). Perceptions of conflict of interest are as important as actual conflicts of interest.
Financial relationships (such as employment, consultancies, stock ownership or options, honoraria, patents, and paid expert testimony) are the most easily identifiable conflicts of interest and the most likely to undermine the credibility of the journal, the authors, and of science itself. However, conflicts can occur for other reasons, such as personal relationships or rivalries, academic competition, and intellectual beliefs. Authors should avoid entering in to agreements with study sponsors, both for-profit and non-profit, that interfere with authors’ access to all of the study’s data or that interfere with their ability to analyze and interpret the data and to prepare and publish manuscripts independently when and where they choose. Authors may be required to provide the journal with the agreements in confidence.
Purposeful failure to disclose conflicts of interest is a form of misconduct, as is discussed in section III.B.
All participants in the peer-review and publication process—not only authors but also peer reviewers, editors, and editorial board members of journals—must consider their conflicts of interest when fulfilling their roles in the process of article review and publication and must disclose all relationships that could be viewed as potential conflicts of interest.
When authors submit a manuscript of any type or format they are responsible for disclosing all financial and personal relationships that might bias or be seen to bias their work. The ICMJE has developed a Form for Disclosure of Conflicts of Interest to facilitate and standardize authors’ disclosures. ICMJE member journals require that authors use this form, and ICMJE encourages other journals to adopt it.
b. Peer Reviewers
Reviewers should be asked at the time they are asked to critique a manuscript if they have conflicts of interest that could complicate their review. Reviewers must disclose to editors any conflicts of interest that could bias their opinions of the manuscript, and should recuse themselves from reviewing specific manuscripts if the potential for bias exists. Reviewers must not use knowledge of the work they’re reviewing before its publication to further their own interests.
c. Editors and Journal Staff
Editors who make final decisions about manuscripts should recuse themselves from editorial decisions if they have conflicts of interest or relationships that pose potential conflicts related to articles under consideration. Other editorial staff members who participate in editorial decisions must provide editors with a current description of their financial interests or other conflicts (as they might relate to editorial judgments) and recuse themselves from any decisions in which a conflict of interest exists. Editorial staff must not use information gained through working with manuscripts for private gain. Editors should publish regular disclosure statements about potential conflicts of interests related to their own commitments and those of their journal staff. Guest editors should follow these same procedures.
Journals should take extra precautions and have a stated policy for evaluation of manuscripts submitted by individuals involved in editorial decisions. Further guidance is available from COPE and WAME.
2. Reporting Conflicts of Interest
Articles should be published with statements or supporting documents, such as the ICMJE conflict of interest form, declaring:
- Authors’ conflicts of interest; and
- 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.”