When a conflict of interest is not a conflict

Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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Transparency about competing interests is essential when reporting scientific data. However, use of the term ‘conflict of interests’ for such declarations can be misleading in some biomedical papers.

A genuine example of a conflict of interest is when academic researchers are financially rewarded for their work by commercial partners. The situation can be more nuanced for reports of biomedical discoveries that could be applied in clinical situations. After all, developing such treatments for patients is a moral obligation for academic researchers, both to their funders and to society — even though it can mean working with biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies. Disclosing a financial arrangement as a ‘conflict of interest’ under such circumstances implies that engagement with for-profit companies is a nefarious activity, potentially at odds with what society expects from biomedical scientists.

In that context, a ‘declaration of interest’ would be a more accurate term for a mandatory and transparent disclosure of financial relationships. A ‘conflict of interest’ should instead be reserved for authors who cannot document efforts to translate their discoveries to the clinic.

Nature 568, 458 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01285-5

Competing Financial Interests

R.B. is the founder of, and a shareholder in, Agendia, Qameleon Therapeutics and Oncosence.

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