A Brief Overview on Conflict of Interests
When an investigator’s relationship to an organization affects, or gives the appearance of affecting, his/her objectivity in the conduct of scholarly or scientific research, a conflict of interest is said to occur. The relationship does not have to be a personal nor a financial one. For example, a conflict of interest could arise when a family member of a researcher is associated with an organization whose product the researcher is in the process of evaluating. Does the family member’s association with the organization compromise his ability to carry out the evaluation objectively? Perhaps. Let’s consider another example. Imagine an investigator who has been conducting basic science on the various processes involved in the release of certain neurotransmitters and whose work has been steadily funded by the maker of one of the most popular antidepressants. Now imagine a new situation where the research carried out by that investigator naturally leads him to study the efficacy of that same antidepressant while being funded by the company that manufactures it. In conducting the research, is that investigator’s objectivity affected by his long-standing relationship to the drug company? Perhaps...
Naturally, some conflicts of interest are unavoidable and having a conflict of interest is not in itself unethical. However, industry has played an increasing role in sponsoring research that bears on commercial applications, leading to a focus on how such sponsorship affects the research process and outcomes. The situation appears to be particularly serious in the realm of pharmaceutical research. For example, Stelfox, Chua, O’Rourke, and Detsky (1998) collected a sample of published reports (e.g., studies, letters to the editor) on the safety of calcium channel blockers, drugs used to treat cardiovascular disease, and correlated the authors’ conclusions about their efficacy with whether or not the investigators had received financial support from companies that manufacture those types of drugs. The results revealed a strong association between conclusions that were supportive of the drugs and prior financial support from companies that were associated with those types of drugs. Other studies have similarly shown these types of troubling relationships (e.g., Lexchin, Bero. Djulbegovic, & Clark, 2003; Lundh, Sismondo, Lexchin, Busuioc, & Bero, 2012).
To ameliorate the situation, research institutions, professional societies, and an increasing number of journals have formulated guidelines for dealing with potential conflicts of interest. Essentially, most of these guidelines require authors to disclose such conflicts either in the cover letter to the editor of the journal to which an investigator submits a manuscript and/or ideally in a footnote on the manuscript itself. For additional guidance on this important topic, the reader should consult the various resources offered by ORI, https://ori.hhs.gov/conflicts-interest-and-commitment.