When interests collide: science under influence

What is this about?

This article is about conflict of interest, a situation that happens when a person or organization has multiple interests (personal, professional, financial…). Working towards one interest could involve conflict with others (1). For example, treating a patient and working for a pharmaceutical company (2). It is important to note that conflict of interest includes the potential for conflict as well, and these should always be reported. This article is focused on conflict of interest in science and academia.

Why is this important?

Conflict of interest is important because it can make performing one’s duties objectively very difficult. Conflict of interest can lead to corruption, and most certainly create a space for bias in decision making. Conflict of interest can happen in a variety of research areas and human activities, but when we take consequences into consideration, in some areas it becomes especially important. For example, in politics, when politicians own private firms and can forward public money to their own companies. Moreover, conflict of interest can happen in healthcare and medicine (3). A recent review revealed that industry sponsored studies are more often in favour to the sponsors’ product compared with studies with other sources of funding (4). Because of the effect it can potentially have on research, scientific journals require a separate declaration of conflict of interest when submitting scientific articles (5).

For whom is this important?

Researchers, Health care professionals, Academic staff

What are the best practices?

A lot has been said about conflict of interest. For example, Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has issued several guidelines for dealing with conflict of interest, from both reviewers’ and readers’ point of view. COPE guidelines for reviewers can be found here, and guidelines for readers can be accessed here.

International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) also addressed the issue of conflict of interest, and defined purposeful failure to disclose conflicts of interest as a form of misconduct. They categorize conflict of interest as following: financial relationships (such as consultancies, stock ownership or options, honorary payments, patents…), personal relationships or rivalries, academic competition, and intellectual beliefs. A more detailed ICMJE explanation and guide can be found here.

A separate ICMJE declaration of conflict of interest form can be accessed here. Completed ICMJE COI declaration is often a requirement for submitting an article to a scientific journal.


1. Thompson DF. Understanding financial conflicts of interest. N Engl J Med. 1993;329(8):573-6.

2. Bekelman JE, Li Y, Gross CP. Scope and impact of financial conflicts of interest in biomedical research: a systematic review. Jama. 2003;289(4):454-65.

3. Resnik DB, Elmore SA. Conflict of Interest in Journal Peer Review: Toxicol Pathol. 2018 Feb;46(2):112-114. doi: 10.1177/0192623318754792. Epub 2018 Jan 30.

4. Lundh A, Lexchin J, Mintzes B, Schroll JB, Bero L. Industry sponsorship and research outcome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;16(2).

5. Ferris LE, Fletcher RH. Conflict of interest in peer-reviewed medical journals: the world association of medical editors position on a challenging problem. J Young Pharm. 2010;2(2):113-5.

Ružica Tokalić contributed to this theme.

Latest contribution was May 29, 2019