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Declaring Conflicts of Interest

There are a lot of ethical considerations that all researchers need to consider when both conducting their studies and writing them up. One issue that journals are starting to take very seriously and incorporate into their guidelines is the declaration of potential conflicts of interest. There have been several notable scandals in the news in recent years where companies and scientists have been caught making claims that were clearly influenced by financial conflicts of interest. These types of controversies look bad on everyone, including the journal that publishes the study, and leaves the public with a mistrust of good quality science.

For those involved in clinical studies, declaring conflicts of interest is an especially important part of your responsibilities during manuscript submission. Any potential conflicts of interest that aren’t declared and are later discovered to exist will likely be perceived as something you were trying to hide that contributed bias to your work. You can’t separate pharmaceutical companies from drug development and clinical trials, but by declaring your study sponsors in an upfront manner you can increase readers’ trust in your work and allow them to assess any potential bias in an honest way.

So what exactly do you need to declare?

Recommended declarations include:

  • financial conflicts of interest (study sponsors, companies that supported your work financially, grants)
  • stock ownership
  • personal conflicts of interest (e.g. you are married to someone at the sponsoring company)
  • employment
  • intellectual property (patents, copyright, royalties)

None of these items need be directly related to the specific study you are writing up, but if they are, those should be stated clearly.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) have prepared a standardized conflict of interest form that is now starting to be used by a lot of journals. Even for those where they don’t specify, if you are uncertain what information you might need to include, the ICMJE form is a good place to look to double-check that you haven’t forgotten any key potential conflicts of interest.

And remember, declaring potential conflicts of interest does not mean that you are admitting any wrongdoing. It is simply a protection for you and your work against perceived bias, which in the eyes of the public, is often the only bias that matters.