Conflict of Interest Policy
Adapted from the WAME Editorial Policy and Publication Ethics Committees. 2009.
Conflict of interest (COI) exists when there is a divergence between an individual’s private interests (competing interests) and his or her responsibilities to scientific and publishing activities such that a reasonable observer might wonder if the individual’s behavior or judgment was motivated by considerations of his or her competing interests. COI in medical publishing affects everyone with a stake in research integrity including journals, research/academic institutions, funding agencies, the popular media, and the public.
Definition and Scope
COI exists when a participant in the publication process (author, peer reviewer, or editor) has a competing interest that could unduly influence (or be reasonably seen to do so) his or her responsibilities in the publication process. Among those responsibilities are academic honesty, unbiased conduct and reporting of research, and integrity of decisions or judgments. The publication process includes the submission of manuscripts, peer review, editorial decisions, and communication between authors, reviewers and editors.
Types of Competing Interests
Financial ties. This conflict is present when a participant in the publication process has received or expects to receive money (or other financial benefits such as patents or stocks), gifts, or services that may influence work related to a specific publication. Commercial sources of funding, by companies that sell drugs and medical devices, are generally seen as the most concerning, perhaps because of many well-publicized examples of bias related to ties to industry. Examples of financial ties to industry include payment for research, ownership of stock and stock options, as well as honoraria for advice or public speaking, consultation, service on advisory boards or medical education companies, and receipt of patents or patents pending. Also included are having a research or clinical position that is funded by companies that sell drugs or devices. Competing interests can be associated with other sources of research funding including government agencies, charities (not-for-profit organizations), and professional and civic organizations, which also have agendas that may be congruent or at odds with research findings. Clinicians have a financial competing interest if they are paid for clinical services related to their research —for example, if they write, review, or edit an article about the comparative advantage of a procedure that they themselves provide for income. Financial competing interests may exist not just on the basis of past activities but also on the expectation of future rewards, such as a pending grant or patent application. “Insider trading,” which is the use for one’s financial gain of information obtained through participation in research, review or editing before it is available to the general public, is a special kind of financial COI that has both legal and ethical implications.
Academic commitments. Participants in the publications process may have strong beliefs (“intellectual passion”) that commit them to a particular explanation, method, or idea. They may, as a result, be biased in conducting research that tests the commitment or in reviewing the work of others that is in favor or at odds with their beliefs. For example, if research challenging conventional wisdom is reviewed by someone who has made his or her reputation by establishing the existing paradigm, that person might judge the new research results harshly. Investigators in the same field might make extra-efforts to find fault with manuscripts from competing teams, to delay publication or relegate the work to a lesser journal. While such commitments are not generally part of author’s disclosures, editors should be aware of them and their potential influence on author(s), reviewer(s), and themselves.
Personal relationships. Personal relationships with family, friends, enemies, competitors, or colleagues can pose COIs. For example, a reviewer may have difficulty providing an unbiased review of articles by investigators who have been working colleagues. Similarly, he or she may find it difficult to be unbiased when reviewing the work of competitors. Bonds to family members may be strong enough that their competing interests should be treated as if they are also present for those directly involved with a manuscript.
Political or religious beliefs. Strong commitment to a particular political view (e.g., political position, agenda, or party) or having a strong religious conviction may pose a COI for a given publication if those political or religious issues are affirmed or challenged in the publication.
Institutional affiliations. A COI exists when a participant in the publication process is directly affiliated with an institution that on the face of it may have a position or an interest in a publication. An obvious concern is being affiliated with or employed by a company that manufactures the drug or device (or a competing one) described in the publication. However, apparently neutral institutions such as universities, hospitals, and research institutes (alone or in partnership with industry) may also have an interest (or the appearance of one) in the results of research. For example, investigators may have a COI when conducting research from a laboratory funded by private donors who could have (or appear to have) an interest in the results of the study, on a device for which the participant’s institution holds the patent, when the institution is the legal sponsor of the drug or device trial, or if the institution is in litigation in an area related to the study. Professional or civic organizations may also have competing interests because of their special interests or advocacy positions.
Declaring and Managing COIs
Journal takes the following into consideration:
All conflicts of interest must be declared at the time of submission. For this purpose “Author certificate” must be completed and uploaded during submission process. It should also be clear that we may ask additional questions or seek clarification about declarations. For example, the journal may ask for details about future monetary gains or ask an author who works in a laboratory funded by a particular organization for written details about how their independence and research integrity was maintained.
All declarations about COI are a condition of reviewing a manuscript.
The consequences for failing to declare COI: The journal journal may investigate allegations of COI and action may be taken if found to be true. Such investigations are to be completed as quickly as reasonably possible. If a manuscript has been published and COI surfaces later, the journal may publish the results of the investigation as a correction to the article and ask the author to explain, in a published letter, why the COI was not revealed earlier.
We publish all relevant COI disclosures with the publication. We try to increase understanding of the concept is and ask investigators and reviewers “if my competing interest becomes known to others later, would I feel defensive or would others in the publication process, readers or the public think I was hiding my other interests or could they feel I misled or deceived them?”
Responsibilities of Participants
Authors. All authors are asked to report their financial COI related to the research and written presentation of their work and any other relevant competing interests. We publish all COI (or their absence) reported by authors that are relevant to the manuscript being considered. In additional to financial COI, policies for authors should be extended to other types of competing interests that might affect (or be seen to affect) the conduct or reporting of the work. Declarations require authors to explicitly state funding sources and whether the organization that funded the research participated in the collection and analyses of data and interpretation and reporting of results.
Reviewers. Reviewers are asked if they have a COI with the content or authors of a manuscript. If they do, they are removed from the review process. We avoid reviewers from the same institution as the authors, unless the institution is so large that authors and reviewers are not working colleagues.
Editors. Editors do not make any editorial decisions or are involved in the editorial process if they have or a close family member has a COI (financial or otherwise) in a particular manuscript submitted to their journal. For example, if editors have political/religious COI or personal COI with respect to the authors or their work, the editors remove themselves from the decision-making process. An editor may also be in a COI if a manuscript is submitted from their own academic department or from their institution (if it is small); in such situations, they should have explicit policies, made in advance, for how to manage it. When editors submit their own work to their journal, a colleague in the editorial office manages the manuscript and the editor/author recuse himself or herself from discussion and decisions about it.