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Post-publication conflicts of interest

Undisclosed conflict of interest in a published article: updated flowchart

The COPE flowcharts are consistently rated by members as being among the most useful and frequently consulted COPE resources. Available in different languages, they offer practical guidance to handle a variety of ethical issues encountered in scholarly publishing either before or after publication.

The complete suite of English language COPE flowcharts was recently revised to follow a consistent logic, design, and layout. The content of the flowcharts, and of other guidance documents, will be gradually updated to reflect evolving best practices and industry standards. The first flowchart to have been updated, now available online, is Undisclosed conflict of interest in a published article.

The updates concern an editorial office’s investigation of previously undisclosed potential conflicts of interest that come to light after an article has been published. At the time of manuscript submission, an author may have declared the absence of potential conflicts of interest or may have disclosed only a partial or inaccurate list. The previous flowchart, similar to the flowchart What to do if a reviewer suspects undisclosed conflict of interest (Col) in a submitted manuscript, recommended that editors collect any missing or corrected conflict of interest statements and then amend the relevant declaration in the paper.

Transparency

The declaration of potential conflicts of interest in scholarly publications follows the operating principles of transparency and accountability. Honest declarations ensure that readers are fully informed of the context and any potential biases when they read and make decisions based on written material. The COPE Core Practice 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”.

Possible conflicts of interest include the funding source for research or for other support, such as writing assistance, in addition to authors’ financial or non-financial interests. When conflicts of interest are submitted, revised, or corrected during the peer review process, they should be taken into account during manuscript (re)assessment and revision.

Corrections and retractions

However, as mentioned in an educational article in a past issue of COPE Digest, when missing conflicts of interest are discovered after publication, a published article might need correction or even retraction. The remedial action depends on whether editors view the conflict of interest as having biased the planning, execution, interpretation, or presentation of the scholarly work. Editors also have to judge if the peer review assessment and editorial decision to publish a paper would have differed if a missing conflict of interest had been disclosed earlier (which could include post-publication review by the same or different reviewers). Notably, some publications and publishers refuse to publish research that is funded by certain industries.

Accordingly, the updated flowchart Undisclosed conflict of interest in a published article includes the possibilities of correcting the article’s content (not just the conflict of interest declaration) and article retraction as endpoints to an investigation. The latter option is consistent with the COPE Retraction guidelines which state that:

  • Editors should consider retracting a publication if:… The author(s) failed to disclose a major competing interest (also known as conflict of interest) that, in the view of the editor, would have unduly affected interpretations of the work or recommendations by editors and peer reviewers [page 3]
  • Retractions are not usually appropriate if:… Author conflicts of interest have been reported to the journal after publication, but in the editor’s view these are not likely to have influenced interpretations or recommendations or the conclusions of the article [page 4]

The updated flowchart also includes possible involvement of the author’s institution at two points: to request assistance or confirmation when an author denies an alleged conflict of interest, and to inform an institution in cases of suspected misconduct.

The flowchart covers basic cases of post-publication disclosure of conflicts of interest. As with the other COPE flowcharts, it cannot cover all eventualities or complex scenarios. In those situations, COPE members can bring anonymised cases to the COPE Forum.

COPE Forum cases: conflicts of interest

The following are some previous COPE Forum cases that involve post-publication disclosure of conflicts of interest, and where COPE Forum’s advice is also consistent with the updated flowchart:

  • Case 03-17: An editor was informed of an author’s potential conflict of interest after publication. The author had thought it was unnecessary to declare it because it had applied only during the research and writing stages. The editor planned to resolve the situation by publishing the missing disclosure as a correction. COPE Forum advised publishing an editorial on conflicts of interest to educate future authors.
  • Case 04-34: An author gave contradictory replies when an editor asked whether a drug company’s involvement in a published literature review had actually gone beyond the paid consultation stated in the conflict of interest statement. COPE Forum advised retraction if the author had in fact been paid to write a company commissioned review.
  • Case 15-15: After publication of an article, a manager at the authors’ institution who was in contact with the funding agency demanded corrections and then withdrew the demand. COPE Forum noted that both employer and funder clearly had conflicts of interest and advised the journal to review its requirements for declaring each author’s conflicts of interest, the funder’s exact role(s), and whether the authors had full control of the data.
  • Case 13-05: After being invited to be a co-author at the end of the first round of review, an editor was listed as both author and handling editor in the published article. COPE Forum recommended that the journal publish an explanation and revise the article’s conflicts of interest statement. The journal should also review its office procedures, including regarding authorship changes, individual conflict of interest declarations (rather than relying on the corresponding author), and when editors submit work to their own journal.

Trevor Lane on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee