What is in a name?

A recent letter to the editor of Nature argues:

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. (The author of the letter is  René Bernards of the Netherlands Cancer Institute.)

I do not know enough about biomedical research conflicts of interest to gauge the merits of this suggestion, but I would be surprised if some scientists couldn’t  still have a conflict of interest even if they translated their discoveries to the clinic. However, the larger point about a COI disclosure seeming to unfairly suggest nefarious conduct basically seems sound.

More generally, I believe that in organizations of all kind,  policies, training and disclosure documents should communicate that not all ostensibly conflicting interests are  wrongful. (This point is sometimes made, but  in my view  not often enough.) The alternative may be to discourage desirable conduct and to drive other conduct underground.

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