23rd November 2020
Academic Writing: What Is a Conflict of Interest?
When conducting research, you may need to think about potential conflicts of interest. But what is a conflict of interest? This post will explain the basics of what conflicts of interest are, why they are important in the research world, and why you may need to declare them in your work.
What Is a Conflict of Interest?
The “interest” in the term “conflict of interest” isn’t just what we mean when we say someone is “interested in” (i.e., curious about) something. Rather, it is more like we see in “business interests” or “vested interests.”
In other words, an “interest” is a commitment, involvement, or connection to something. And in the scientific world, a conflict of interest is any connection or investment that may undermine your research.
The issue is that science aims for objectivity. And the desire to produce objective results is a governing “interest” of scientific research. Thus, if you have a connection or relationship that could impair your objectivity – or even just give the impression of bias – it could be a problem.
Types of Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest can be either financial or non-financial.
Financial conflicts are related to commercial interests. This can include:
- How a study was funded (e.g., if research is sponsored by a business whose product sales may rely on the outcomes of your work, such as tobacco companies funding studies related to smoking).
- Direct financial benefits received by researchers from organizations with an interest in their work (e.g., if a researcher also works for a company that stands to gain from a specific set of results).
Non-financial conflicts of interest, meanwhile, can involve:
- Political or religious affiliations (e.g., seeking results that justify a particular government policy or promote a specific moral world-view).
- Personal connections (e.g., wanting to support a colleague’s theory).
- Involvement in legal action connected to the work.
In other words, there are many things that can constitute a conflict of interest! And researchers need to be aware of these possibilities.
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Declaring Your Interests
Undeclared conflicts of interest can call your results into question. It doesn’t even matter if your work was genuinely biased: just the perception of a conflict of interests can lead to damaged reputations or loss of funding.
It is, therefore, important to declare any conflicts of interest when you submit your research for publication. The exact procedure for this will depend on your situation, but most organizations will have some guidelines. Some will even have a template “disclosure statement” you can use.
When you come to submit your work, then:
- Note any personal or financial relationships that could be seen to affect your research, even if they’re not directly related to the study.
- Check what the organization you’re submitting to (e.g., the university or academic journal) says about declaring interests.
- Follow these guidelines carefully and draft a declaration of interests.
Even if you cannot think of a single possible source of bias, you will usually need to submit a declaration. In this case, though, you will simply say that there are no conflicts of interest you wish to declare.
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