Identifying conflicts of interest
Conflicts of interest in research are a big deal. You must identify and disclose any that exist or do arise in the course of your project.
The problem with conflicts of interest is that they prevent you from remaining neutral. Even if you believe you can remain neutral, outside observers may consider it impossible. In other words, a conflict of interest can be real or perceived. Both are damaging. Both have the potential to compromise the integrity of your research. Our advice is to treat all potential conflicts of interests as if they do exist.
Let’s look at some examples, drawn from Griffith University’s fact sheet, Conflicts of Interest as a Research Integrity Consideration. You’ll notice they don’t all relate to financial conflicts of interest.
- Research being sponsored by an industry or organisation who stands to benefit from generating certain results - or who are in a position to suppress results that don’t suit their agenda.
- Where the researcher may benefit financially. For example, being paid a bonus if a particular set of results is achieved or being paid a ‘per participant’ fee by a sponsor.
- Where the research is investigating issues that may be of particular interest to an organisation or industry and the researcher is also an officer of that body.
- Where the research involves the assessment of a service or programme the researcher is associated with or responsible for.
What are your responsibilities?
Your key responsibility is to accurately identify conflicts of interest that exist, disclose the details of the conflict (or potential conflict) and manage it appropriately.
Strategies for managing serious conflicts of interest include:
- Changing the design of your research in terms of the way you collect data.
- Changing the location of the research, the participants you were going to recruit or changing the timing of the research to negate the conflict.
- Include an independent expert (or a panel of experts) when it comes time to analyse the collected data and when your results are being written up.
Failing to appropriately manage a conflict of interest can have significant negative impacts on you, your research team and any institution your research is affiliated with. It can also cast doubt over the credibility of the research itself.
Like many areas relating to reputation, trust is hard to build, easy to lose and almost impossible to recover. When it comes to conflicts of interest - real or perceived - always disclose.
Reflecting on the nature of your research study, can you already identify any potential conflicts of interest you may need to disclose? In the comments section below, share your thoughts on the ethical challenges associated with both real and perceived conflicts of interest in research.
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