Blog series on scientific integrity

Conflicts of interest – how to recognise and address them

Scientific integrity is of the utmost importance at Maastricht University. In this blog David Shaw, Associate Professor at the Department of Health, Ethics and Society, goes into conflicts of interest and gives some examples and advice.

What are conflicts of interest?

When most people think about a conflict of interest they focus on financial conflicts, as they are probably the most visible conflicts of interest. However, there are many other conflicts of interest, including personal and professional ones. In the “bad old days”, some heads of departments or labs often expected to automatically be included as author on a paper even when they didn’t contribute to it. Another personal/professional conflict of interest to be avoided is nominating a friend or colleague as a reviewer for one of your papers.

There are also medical conflicts of interest, where your own illness or that of a family member can bias your decision making. For example, imagine if the PI on a cancer trial has a son who is diagnosed with the same type of cancer as in the trial; this could potentially pose a conflict of interest in the way he treats paediatric patients on the trial. Another example is if you’re writing a paper on a medical condition that you are affected by or have yourself. A more frivolous example concerns a blog I wrote on the dangers of heading the ball in football. I had a conflict of interest and declared it: “the author’s elder son plays centre-midfield and isn’t keen on the ban.”

How to deal with conflicts of interest?

Raising concerns about that can be difficult because of a conflict of interest: on the one hand, you want to do what is right but on the other hand, you also want to keep your job so staying quiet may seem safer. So, what should you do when you find yourself in a (potential) conflict of interest? My advice is to think carefully before acting. Talk things over with a friend or colleague when you can and then take steps to stop it. If you see someone else who might be in a conflict of interest, you can point it out to him or her. But don’t immediately push the panic button. Gently broach the subject. Don’t make it about finger-pointing, but rather, about helping them to see the conflict. Some researchers might not know all the rules and are therefore not aware that there even is a conflict of interest.

It is also good to know that there are confidential advisors that can offer advice on how to proceed. In addition, there are ombudspersons you can ask for advice and a Scientific Integrity Committee for more serious cases. The roadmaps for scientific integrity and social safety for students, PhD candidates and staff will help you find the right person for your specific situation.

Control your bias

How do you know if you are in a (potential) conflict of interest? Good questions to ask yourself are ‘Do I have any relationships or contacts that could influence my objectivity?’ ‘Are there any factors that could bias my research?’ If you check that, you can control your bias as you proceed with your research.