COPE Forum discussion introduction
Watch the introduction to the topic "Editorial conflicts of interest" with COPE Council member, Itamar Ashkenazi.
To maintain credibility, scholarly publications need to make the utmost effort to be transparent about possible research, reporting, and publication biases, and their bearing on the published content. Conflicts of interest (COIs), or competing interests, are one more possible source of bias. A COI is defined by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) as existing “when professional judgment concerning a primary interest…may be influenced by a secondary interest". COIs are considered inevitable. In fact, everyone involved in the publication process could be affected: authors, reviewers, journal editors, guest editors, and manuscript editors, as well as other journal staff and service providers.
In particular, all decision makers of a publication’s content, policies, and management must ensure decisions are not biased by COIs. Declaration of COIs is perceived as the primary tool to reduce this bias. Although most journals require that authors provide a publishable disclosure of COIs, a similar requirement for editors and editorial board members is lacking, and only a few journals openly disclose editors’ potential COIs on their websites. This is despite COPE, ICMJE, the World Association of Medical Editors, the Council of Science Editors, and other groups recommending the disclosure of editorial COIs. COPE’s guidance on COIs  even extends to potential editors declaring COIs, including current editorships, when applying to join an editorial board.
Policies and practices regarding editors’ and editorial board members' disclosure of potential COIs are far from being settled and urgently need more attention and remedial action.
Questions for discussion
- How should policies on editorial COIs be formulated (eg, definitions of COI types and disclosure method)?
- Should journal editors and editorial board members publicly declare COIs and/or CVs? If so, how often?
- Should editors and editorial board members declare potential COIs whenever they submit (co)authored articles to their own journal? Should the declarations be published?
- Beyond declaration of editorial COIs, how should affected submissions be handled by the journal, and what other bias mitigation steps are needed?
The comments on the Forum discussion will be posted here after the Forum.
- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals. December 2021
- Dal-Ré R, Caplan AL, Marusic A. Editors’ and authors’ individual conflicts of interest disclosure and journal transparency. A cross-sectional study of high-impact medical specialty journals. BMJ Open 2019;9:e029796. [A Marusic is currently a COPE Council member]
- COPE. Conflicts of interest/Competing interests
- COPE Council. COPE Guidelines: Editorial board participation
Comments from the Forum, 3 March 2022
NOTE, Comments do not imply formal COPE advice, or consensus.
- Publishers should be proactively highlighting when an editorial board member publishes in their own journal, so that readers are aware that they recused themselves from the usual editorial and peer review process. Ideally editors should be declaring this as a COI but in practice it is difficult to mandate.
- Many journals mandate author COI statements, so these easily make their way into the published articles. Editors frequently manage their COIs well, for example by recusing themselves from the review process, but a statement confirming to readers that this is the case is difficult to integrate into the publishing process.
- Why do so few editors declare COIs? What can COPE do to increase this percentage? There could be logistical issues. If an editorial board is very large, publishing and updating COIs can be time consuming. COIs can be out of date very quickly. It would be helpful to know what is considered an essential ethical bar versus a nice to have. For example, do COIs of associate editors need to be published on the journal website or is it more important to disclose these COIs on the relevant papers?
- In large journals with thousands of editorial board members, it is not always feasible to keep COIs up to date, especially with a small staff.
- Some journals provide a list of what should be declared. The list includes financial declarations as well as those that could be perceived as a conflict. COIs of friends, family, and personal contacts should also be declared.
- Non-financial societal affiliations are also important.
- COIs, such as financial and personal, are relatively easy to manage or declare. "Softer" COIs, such as political or intellectual perspective ones are difficult, particularly when it relates to the role of an editor (which in some cases might mean that they need to apply their intellectual perspective).
- A COI form from COPE on what to disclose would be helpful. How often should COIs be updated—every year? Every three 3 years? When people join an editorial board or renew their term?
- Training in publication ethics for editorial board members is provided by some journals, where the issue of COIs is covered. Editorial board members are required to complete a financial disclosure statement, which is published on the journal website and revised regularly.
- Some journals have policies for editorial leadership—that is, editors that make decisions on papers (editors-in-chief, deputy editors, associate editors). The policy on the website states that if they are a coauthor on a paper, they are not involved in making a decision on a paper, and a disclosure statement to that effect appears in the disclosure section of the published article. This allows full transparency, with statements in the instructions as well as in the published papers. If authors have no COIs, a statement to that effect is required. Readers should be notified when the peer review process has been adapted.
- Some journals require authors to declare if they are an editorial or staff member of a sister journal, published by the same publisher. This is flagged in the editorial system. Technically, it should also be declared in the article but often this does not happen.
- Journals should think beyond financial conflicts. There have been instances of politically motivated agenda studies being published that have not disclosed COIs.
- Potential COIs might not be financial, and bias can arise from multiple other sources. What might appear to one person as an obvious bias (eg, working in the same field but in a competing institution) may not be apparent to another.
- The ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) has information on disclosure of financial and non-financial COIs. The recently updated ICMJE COI form states: “In the interest of transparency, we ask you to disclose all relationships/activities/interests listed below that are related to the content of your manuscript. “Related” means any relation with for-profit or not-for-profit third parties whose interests may be affected by the content of the manuscript. Disclosure represents a commitment to transparency and does not necessarily indicate a bias. If you are in doubt about whether to list a relationship/activity/interest, it is preferable that you do so.”
- Is the ICMJE form too comprehensive? Sometimes COIs can be over comprehensive and the most pertinent ones are lost in the list of declarations. Also, it is not always clear why the declaration is a COI.
- Could editorial management systems be used to collect information on COIs from authors and reviewers who are editors or editorial board members? Authors and reviewers could then affirm that the COI information they have provided is up to date.
- In the context of editorial COIs, allegations are often made about inherent COIs for full time professional editors working for commercial publishers (as they have a general financial interest in publishing) on the one hand, and for society editors (as they are too close to the scientific community) on the other hand.
- Editorials from COPE on this topic to publish in journals would be welcome.
- PLOS provides information on their competing interests policies on their website
- COPE Core Practice: conflicts of interest
- Conflicts of interest focus 2018
- Undisclosed conflict of interest in a published article 2021
Page last updated: 3 March 2022
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