ORI Introduction to RCR: Chapter 5. Conflicts of Interest
Researchers work hard, often spending long hours and sometimes weekends in the laboratory, library, or at professional meetings. Their motivation for working hard stems from many sources. Research:
- advances knowledge,
- leads to discoveries that will benefit individuals and society,
- furthers professional advancement, and/or
- results in personal gain and satisfaction.
Each of these incentives or interests is commonly recognized as responsible and justifiable.
Researchers are allowed to and even encouraged to profit from their work (see the discussion of the Bayh-Dole Act, below). Professional advancement as a researcher depends on productivity. Society expects researchers to use the funds it supplies to advance knowledge and to make useful discoveries. Personal gain and satisfaction provide strong incentives for doing a good job and acting responsibly.
Researchers’ interests can and often do conflict with one another. The advancement of knowledge is usually best served by sharing ideas with colleagues, putting many minds to work on the same problem. But personal gain is sometimes best served by keeping ideas to oneself until they are fully developed and then protected through patents, copyrights, or publications. Legitimate research interests can create competing responsibilities and lead to what is commonly called conflicts of interest.
It is important to understand that conflicts of interest are not inherently wrong. The complex and demanding nature of research today inevitably gives rise to competing obligations and interests. Researchers are expected to serve on committees, to train young researchers, to teach, and to review grants and manuscripts at the same timethey pursue their own research. Conflicts of interest cannot and need not be avoided.
However, in three crucial areas:
- financial gain,
- work commitments, and
- intellectual and personal matters,
special steps are needed to assure that conflicts do not interfere with the responsible practice of research.
Whose interest comes first?