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Conflicts of interest focus

COPE’s Core Practice #4 on conflicts of interest / competing interests states: “There must be clear definitions of conflicts of interest and processes for handling conflicts of interest of authors, reviewers, editors, journals and publishers, whether identified before or after publication”.

Conflicts of interest are situations that have the potential to influence people’s judgements. Such situations may affect, or may be perceived to affect, every stage of research, from planning to applying for or allocating funding, conducting a study, interpreting data and reporting research. In publishing, conflicts of interest could influence peer review, editorial decisions and publication management. COPE’s resources relating to its fourth core practice aim to minimize the effect of conflicts of interest and thereby help maximize the objectivity and integrity of the research and scholarly literature.

As with the other core practices, journals need clear, consistent and well-publicized policies on conflicts of interest. First, journals should define what needs to be disclosed by all parties, including type of competing interest, extent, and recency. As Dr Neville Gibbs reminds us in a past COPE seminar presentation, transparency is key. Relevant conflicts of interest can go beyond funding source and commercial and/or personal financial gain. An acid test is that a conflict of interest is something that if undeclared but discovered later “would make a reasonable reader feel misled or deceived.”

Journals should have policies for how and when such information is collected. In another past COPE seminar presentation, Prof Christopher Baethge reports that the use of a standard form at submission stage increases author disclosures to editors and the inclusion of disclosures in journal articles to inform readers.

The COPE discussion/guidance document on handling competing interests also offers advice on how journals can ensure that authors’ conflicts of interest are disclosed to editors and readers. Ultimately, journals rely on authors’ honesty.

If during peer review, reviewers suspect undeclared author conflicts of interest, they need to inform the editor, who should follow the relevant COPE flowchart before continuing with review. If readers of published articles report possible undisclosed author conflicts of interest, the journal should follow the relevant COPE flowchart and issue a correction if appropriate, or even retraction. If necessary, according to the discussion/guidance document, an author’s institution may be requested to investigate possible missing conflicts of interest, but the institutional contact also must be free of any relevant conflicts of interest.

Finally, COPE provides practical guidance to peer reviewers about disclosing their own conflicts of interest before and during peer review that may prevent an impartial review, including recent collaborations with or being at the same institution as an author.

The e-learning course for members has a module on conflicts of interest. Both members and non-members have free access to the 70 archived COPE Forum cases that are related to conflicts of interest. Some cases describe novel situations, such as possible conflicts of interest of an institution and funder (case 15-15), consequences of allowing a peer reviewer with a conflict of interest to continue reviewing a paper (case 10-34), and editors with conflicts of interest (e.g., cases 11-04 and 07-01 and 06-11). It is hoped that the cases may further help journals formulate detailed policies for disclosing and handling conflicts of interest.

Trevor Lane on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee

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