Beware a conflict of interest

has asked contributors to declare potential conflicts of interest, including disclosure of sources of funding.

By | August 23, 2001

One of the World's leading science journals this week bowed to mounting pressure and asked contributors to declare potential conflicts of interest, including disclosure of financial interests. Phillip Campbell, editor of Nature, which previously did not have a financial disclosure policy, issued a statement on 23 August 2001 titled 'Declaration of financial interests'. In the statement, he introduces a new policy for authors of research papers in Nature.

Campbell states there is evidence to suggest that publication practices in biomedical research have been influenced by the commercial interests of authors. He also voices a general concern in the scientific community of the possible undermining of the integrity of scientific research by increasing commercial links and consequent influences.

Concerns about conflicts of interest in science hit the headlines earlier this year following publication in the spring of a study by Tufts University in Science and Engineering Ethics. It found that only 16% of 1396 highly ranked scientific and biomedical journals had conflict of interest disclosure policies. And of those, fewer than one percent of articles they published in 1997 contained any disclosures from authors. Nearly 66% of the journals contained no disclosures at all.

Though the subject is now in the public eye, it is not new. As long ago as 1998, Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), wrote in an editorial that, "Those who argue against concerns about conflict of interest say that science is science, methods are transparent, data either support the conclusions or do not… [But] this argument is becoming steadily less tenable as evidence accumulates on the influence of conflict of interest."

Smith cited two studies — one in the New England Journal of Medicine and the second in the Journal of the American Medical Association — that show that scientists with financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies and the tobacco industry were much more likely to find results favourable to those industries.

Smith is the University of Nottingham professor who quit his chair in medical journalism earlier this summer when the university accepted funding from British American Tobacco. He has long been a voice in the debate on the influence of competing interests of scientists on research. He early on set a policy at the BMJ of transparency, asking authors submitting papers to declare all competing interests, not just financial but intellectual and emotional conflicts as well.

There is also the concern that the investigation of competing interests will turn into a witch-hunt. "Everyone has competing interests and that is not necessarily a bad thing," says Jane Smith, deputy editor of the BMJ. "If you want an expert in the field, they probably lecture on the subject, have a paid consultancy in the area and receive funding for research. If someone has no competing interests, they probably don't know much in the area."

Fiona Godlee, editorial director for medicine at BioMed Central, insists that medical authors are asked what potential conflicts of interest they have. The majority say none, and can be classed as 'none declared' alongside their articles. "I've conducted research into how many authors declare anything and the proportion is very small," says Godlee. "It's something like two per cent."

BMJ, Nature and the studies mentioned stress the need for transparency. "If interests are disclosed, readers will be able to make an informed judgement about their significance or lack of," says Campbell.

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