Many conflict of interest issues boil down to the phrase “follow the money.” This applies not only to money directly paid to the researcher for royalties or consulting but also to money supplied to fund the research. In theory, research is impartial, devoted to finding and reporting the truth. In practice, interested parties may slant results in a way that favors their interests. If a tobacco company conducts its own studies of the effect of smoking on cancer rates of mice, it may submit a paper which shows no effect. The fact that the tobacco company benefits from this conclusion is an obvious conflict of interest and should raise doubts about the research. Did they deliberately select a breed of test subjects that were low cancer risks? Did they carry out ten studies but publish only the one that showed no effect?
Most cases are not as extreme as the hypothetical example. Funding from industrial sources may be given to a researcher with the hope that favorable results will be published but not with any pressure to do so. After all, the more impartial the researcher is thought to be, the more weight will be given to the results. However, if a funding source does exert pressure for favorable results, a researcher should immediately make it clear that the work will be done with strict impartiality. If pressure continues, end the project. Reputations take many years to build, but can be destroyed quickly.
The requirement for disclosing funding sources should not be considered pejorative. Journals know this and sometimes give advice on how to word disclosures in a neutral fashion. Sponsoring companies might not want their identity highlighted. In that case a researcher might write, “In this double-blind, manufacturer sponsored study. . .” or “partially manufacturer-supported” or “supported by the maker of [name of the drug].”
Nonindustrial funding sources also may have a strong interest in the results of a study. On a study on global warming, the funding source might be a big believer in the phenomenon, or conversely, be implacably hostile to it. If an organization might use the results to promote their viewpoint for political or other advantages, there is a conflict of interest. Since it’s sometimes hard for a researcher to determine just what the motivations of a funding source are, all funding sources really should be disclosed.
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