2.2 Conflicts of Interest
A conflict of interest arises when one’s judgment is compromised based on connections, favors, or competing interests, and/or when one’s position is used to gain favor or extra rewards. Conflicts of interest are not always immediately obvious, nor does a conflict of interest in-and-of-itself constitute wrongdoing.
Personal obligations, connections to other institutions, participation in other research programs, or drawing from competing pools of funding can influence one’s capacity to be impartial in a given situation. Being impartial is as necessary in producing and reviewing scientific research as it is in jury selection in a court of law or in the practice of medicine. Perfect impartiality is not really possible, as we are always assessing a situation based on the unique culmination of our experiences and perspectives. Nevertheless, there are experiences, perspectives, and connections that may cause us to not be able to think outside of our own interests. Knowing when we are or are not able to think outside of our other interests is crucial to understanding how to avoid possible conflicts of interest. It is important to note that having an opposing viewpoint does not constitute a conflict of interest and is a cornerstone to robust reviews.
“Authors should also realize that disclosing financial support does not automatically diminish the credibility of the research. However, failure to disclosed a competing financial interest that is subsequently discovered immediately opens the authors to questions about objectivity.”
Thomas J. Goehl, Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Health Perspectives, V. 112, No. 14, October 2004, p. A 788.
Corrosions to Impartiality
Problems that can erode impartiality in a given analysis should be explicitly stated and made transparent, often arising when different sources of resources are being invested in research. Using public funds for research in support of research for a private company can also be problematic. Conflicts of interest can also skew one’s perspective towards seeing or interpreting results that may not be there, or in ignoring data that are there. For example, conflicts can arise when companies are determining the health risks their products may pose, such as the risks of smoking being tested by tobacco companies.
The key to avoiding possible conflicts of interest is transparency of plausible interest in a given situation. Reveal all relevant connections to the case at hand. Recuse oneself from the case at hand if necessary.