What makes a conflict of interest in science? Definitions differ, but broadly agree on one thing: an influence that can cloud a researcher’s objectivity. For some people, that influence can be money. But there are other influences that can interfere, such as institutional loyalty, personal beliefs and ambition.
Nature and the other Nature Research journals (including the Nature research and reviews journals, Nature Communications, Scientific Reports, Scientific Data, the Nature Partner Journals and the Communications journals) are taking into account some of these non-financial sources of possible tension and conflict. From February, authors of research articles, reviews, commentaries and research analyses will be asked (and expected) to disclose them (see go.nature.com/2ddg12z).
For this purpose, competing interests (both financial and non-financial) are defined as a secondary interest that could directly undermine, or be perceived to undermine, the objectivity, integrity and value of a publication through a potential influence on the judgements and actions of authors with regard to objective data presentation, analysis and interpretation. Non-financial competing interests can include a range of personal and/or professional relationships with organizations and individuals, including membership of governmental, non-governmental, advocacy or lobbying organizations, or serving as an expert witness.
We recognize that not everybody shares the same level of concern about non-financial conflicts. Some argue, for example, that because non-financial conflicts cannot be removed, whereas financial conflicts can, focusing on the former could send a message that it’s enough to simply declare financial conflicts rather than remove them. And few would agree with the judge in Scotland who, in a 2005 case, concluded that non-paid expert witnesses were more likely to be biased (because they wanted to push an agenda) than the highly remunerated experts who spoke on behalf of a tobacco company (L. Friedman and R. Daynard Tob. Control 16, 293; 2007).
Numerous studies have demonstrated that financial competing interests in industry-sponsored research have the potential to introduce bias into study design, analysis and reporting; by comparison, the impact of non-financial competing interests has been much less well studied. Nevertheless, it is fair to expect that these associations could colour study design, interpretation and the subsequent reception of published findings; to guard against that, a number of clinical and biomedical journals have required disclosures of non-financial interests for several years. At a time when there is increasing scrutiny of the scientific process, transparent disclosures that allow readers to form their own conclusions about the published work are the best way to maintain public trust.
Nature journals will make full disclosure statements available to peer reviewers as part of the review process and will publish them online. However, although we will facilitate disclosure during the peer review and publication process, the responsibility for appropriately disclosing, managing and eliminating competing interests rests with the authors and their institutions. If we become aware of undisclosed interests that could qualify as a competing interest, in most cases we will amend the published work by issuing a correction. However, in rare cases in which the competing interest is important enough to raise concerns about the reliability of the study, more-serious action may be warranted. Nature Research journals already invite peer reviewers to exclude themselves in cases in which there is a significant conflict of interest, financial or otherwise. And journal editorial staff are required to declare to their employer any interests.
The Nature journals’ competing financial interest policy for authors, which was first introduced in 2001, focused on primary research articles only. We expanded the remit in subsequent years to include review articles and other types of externally authored material, including News & Views, book reviews and opinion articles. The current move is the latest in an evolving process, and we welcome feedback on the change.