Manual for Research and Publication Ethics in Science and Engineering

Cho Eun Hee, Kim Young-Mog, Park Kibeom, Son Wha-Chul, Yoon Tae-Woong, Lim Jeong Mook, Hwang Eun Seong
ISBN-13: 978-89-5938-345-0-93190
Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies
This is an open-access publication distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Conflict of Interest

Conflict of Interest

I. Definition and Scope of Conflict of Interest

1. What is a conflict of interest?

Conflict of interest can be broadly defined as a situation in which an individual or a group of people are faced with two contradictory interests and thus cannot help but give up or ignore one interest for the sake of the other.

Conflict of interest represents a set of conditions in which one's judgment on the primary interest, such as the validity of research or the treatment of patients, is unduly affected by secondary interests such as financial gain. 1

[1] SW Hong SW Lee Conflict of interest Gwacheon Ministry of Science and Technology 2007 8.

A conflict of interest can be resolved by giving up one of those conflicting interests either by making a conscious personal choice (i.e., giving up a good job for family) or by instituting regulations (i.e., the exclusion of professors with children in senior year from college admission processes). Since situations involving conflict of interest can, at times, have negative social consequences, various judicial and ethical guidelines have been established.

Granting privileges to retired officials, which is prevalent in Korean society, can be seen as a prime example of conflict of interest. Major law firms and companies seek to hire recently retired high-ranking government officials in order to influence executive decisions or judicial rulings. Under these circumstances, a conflict of interest arises for both the retired government officials and those they lobby, civil servants or judges. The Lawyers Act prohibits such activities.

A conflict of interest in research ethics involves a study being influenced or having the possibility of being influenced by other concerned parties. Possible cases include: cigarette companies funding a study on the effect of smoking on health; a pharmaceutical company providing funding for research on the effectiveness of a drug produced by that particular company.

Conflict of interest could occur even in cases where no financial or other interest is involved and nobody intends to abuse such interest. For example, the religious beliefs of a researcher could hinder unbiased observation in empirical research. In such cases, conflict of interest or bias inhibits impartial research and risks the credibility of research results.

Although conflict of interest affects research ethics, conflict of interest itself is not considered research misconduct or misbehavior. It counts as a violation of research ethics only when the conflict of interest leads to an inappropriate action.

Hence, conflicts of interest should be managed rather than forbidden completely. Conflicts of interest must be clearly identified and be avoided as much as possible, and when unavoidable, must be mitigated appropriately.

2. Types of conflicts of interest

Conflict of interest can be classified in many different ways; however, the most basic division is between financial and non-financial conflicts of interest. Article 18 of the Seoul National University Research Ethics Guidelines outlines the relevant details as follows:

Seoul National University Research Ethics Guidelines (2010) Article 18 (Conflict of Interest)

A conflict of interest refers to the case in which any of the following can have negative impacts on an unbiased professional opinion or research performance.

  • Financial conflict of interest: Conflict arising from financial gain by the researcher in relation to his/her research

  • Personal conflict of interest: Conflicts resulting from personal relationships, affiliations, personal conflicts, or rivalry

  • Intellectual conflict of interest: Conflicts between the researcher's religious or moral convictions, worldview, or theoretical position and his/her research

  • Conflict of interest from responsibility: Conflicts between the researcher's affiliation with education, charity, or other external responsibilities and his/her research

  • Other conflict of interest: Other similar conflicts adhering to articles 1 to 4

Conflicts of interest can also be classified according to whether there is an actual or potential conflict of interest, and whether the primary and secondary interests are in a direct conflict or in an indirect conflict with each other. This classification is purely situational. The fact that a conflict of interest arises does not mean that the conflict automatically results in research misconduct or the damage of the primary interest.

There are cases where no immediate conflict of interest exists, but could arise in the future. For example, a company could pay an excessive honorarium for a lecture or excessive fees for a manuscript to a researcher in the relevant field. If it is probable that this researcher will evaluate a product produced by the company in the future, then one can say that the researcher is facing a potential conflict of interest.

Even when the primary and the secondary interest are not in actual conflict, it might appear to be the case. It is called “apparent conflict of interest.” This might be simply dismissed as misguided; however, since such conflict can unjustly undermine the integrity of the research, it is better to seek an active resolution through disclosure.

Because the primary interest of good research can be affected by the secondary interests of individuals and groups, all the situations regarding conflicts of interest illustrated above can be applied to groups as well as individuals.

3. The importance of resolving conflict of interest

Conflict of interest must be taken very seriously; primarily because it can call into question the integrity of the research. In order for researchers to fulfill their aim of conducting objective and thorough research, they must protect themselves from any conflict of interest that may affect the research. Those interests could create biases in their investigations or experiments.

Even if a specific interest did not directly affect the research, the fact that a researcher is involved in a conflict of interest may undermine the credibility of the research. Hence, even when a researcher is certain that there are no conflicts that would compromise his/her integrity, he/she needs to seek appropriate strategies to resolve the conflict of interest preemptively.

If research misconduct occurs due to mismanagement of a conflict of interest, negative social consequences may follow. In addition, when one attempts to hide or disguise the conflict while a conflict of interest actually exists or appears to exist, such attempt may result in damaging the researcher's credibility as a professional and cause a great loss in social capital. A researchers' professional opinion on a particular government policy is often considered to be twisted based on their political stances, which makes the professional opinion generally meaningless. This, in turn, may threaten the foundation of our knowledge-based society, in which professionals play a significant role.

We should pay more attention to conflict of interest, because more and more cases of unclear and subtle conflict of interest in each stage of the research process are being observed along with blatant and clear ones. In order to prevent the complications resulting from conflicts of interest, it is necessary to have a clear understanding and critical awareness of various types of conflicts of interest, which can lead to rigorous and meticulous policies.

II. Judgments and Resolutions of Conflict of Interest

1. Judgments on conflict of interest

Monetary conflicts of interest can be avoided to a certain degree by effective institutional regulations and guidelines. However, in academia, it is practically impossible to avoid all conflicts of interest. In Korea, for example, researchers in the same field are in close personal relationships and have complex social networks, as the size of academia is relatively small. Thus, it is virtually impossible to escape apparent conflicts of interest in peer reviews.

The initial judgments on conflicts of interest must be made by individual researchers themselves. They should avoid conflict-of-interest situations as much as possible, and reveal any information that may lead to unnecessary misunderstandings in advance. Researchers should actively seek to protect themselves from the inappropriate consequences of conflicts of interest, as well. Note that having a clear conscience does not mean that researchers are safe from the negative influences of conflicts of interest. Hence, researchers are required to have the wisdom and ethical disposition not to create any conflict of interest in terms of the form and contents of their research.

Evaluation of a conflict of interest can take place during the review of conflicts of interest reported by the researcher him/herself. For example, if a researcher testing the effectiveness of a drug reported that he/she owns many shares of the company that manufactures that particular drug, then he/she may be asked to sell the shares before the experiment begins or may be required to modify the contents of the research.

When an investigation of inappropriate conflicts of interest is initiated due to an allegation, there is no choice but to follow the usual procedure for handling research misconduct. However, since there is no detailed regulation regarding conflicts of interest in Korea, one has to rely on the general guidelines and the ethical judgment of the investigative panels. Article 19 of the Seoul National University Research Ethics Guideline refers to conflicts of interest, but it only requires the researcher to stop the research and report the conflict of interest. Detailed strategies regarding how to resolve situations are not provided.

Seoul National University Research Ethics Guideline Article 19 (Management of Conflicts of Interest)

  • If the degree of conflict of interest is severe and has the potential to result in a negative effect on the research, the researchers must terminate the research immediately. In order to continue the research, they must seek the supervision of a third party regarding the impartiality of the research. The lead researcher must ensure that the objectivity of the research is not sacrificed by taking necessary measures such as excluding the researcher involved in the conflict of interest from the project.

2. Resolution of conflicts of interest

As previously mentioned, conflicts of interest must be managed and not prohibited altogether. Conflicts of interest should be managed by the researcher's affiliated organization, the academic society publishing the manuscript, and the organization funding the research. Resolutions should be presented through various regulations and guidelines. They can be generally classified into two categories: prohibition of a certain act or a conflict-of-interest situation and public disclosure of any interests involved. 2

1. Resolution through prohibition

Resolution through prohibition means either avoiding conflict situations completely or minimizing the degree of conflicts through various regulations and guidelines.

  • For example, a member of an Intellectual Property Rights Dispute Committee shall be excluded from deliberation on and mediation of the relevant case, if (1) he/she has a kinship relationship with the party of the relevant case, (2) he/she was involved in that particular case in the past, or (3) he/she has a direct interest in the case (Invention Promotion Act, Article 41-2).

2. Mandatory public disclosure

In order to avoid damaging the objectivity of the research due to a conflict of interest, the researcher can be required to disclose conflicts of interest in advance.

Disclosure of conflicts of interest has many benefits. (1) It allows researchers to avoid research misconduct due to conflicts of interest in advance by taking necessary measures in the research planning stage. (2) By revealing conflicts of interest, the researcher is encouraged to pay more attention to maintaining the objectivity of the experiment. (3) By revealing conflicts of interest in advance, one can avoid unnecessary misunderstandings by evaluators and users, and achieve objective judgment on the credibility of the research.

In the United States, “significant financial interest” is clearly defined in the Code of Federal Regulations (45 CFR 94). To observe this regulation, research centers require researchers to produce conflict-of-interest prevention plans such as submission and review of financial disclosure statements. 3

United States Code of Federal Regulations 45 CFR 94.4: Responsibilities of Institutions regarding investigator financial conflicts of interest4

Each institution shall:

  1. Maintain an up-to-date, written, enforced policy on financial conflicts of interest that complies with this part, and make such policy available via a publicly accessible Website.

  2. Inform each investigator of the institution's policy on financial conflicts of interest, the investigator's responsibilities regarding disclosure of significant financial interests, and of these regulations.

  3. If the institution carries out the PHS-funded research through a subrecipient (e.g., subcontractors, or consortium members), the institution (awardee Institution) must take reasonable steps to ensure that any subrecipient investigator complies with this part.

  4. Designate an institutional official(s) to solicit and review disclosures of significant financial interests from each investigator who is planning to participate in, or is participating in, the PHS-funded research.

Research institutions need to identify types of conflict of interest that arise frequently and create detailed guidelines to prevent unnecessary concern and misunderstanding.

  • Various institutions such as journal publishers, funding organizations, and administrative agencies responsible for management and supervision could make checklists preventing conflicts of interest and require the researchers to fill out the checklist.

  • A detailed guideline will help researchers' personal judgment on their own situation.

  • For example, in cases of monetary conflicts of interest, they could specify the maximum amount of funds as the criteria of prohibition and disclosure.

3. Examples of conflicts of interest and resolutions

The types of conflicts of interest illustrated above and their resolutions can be organized as follows:

Monetary conflicts of interest Non-monetary
Actual conflicts of interest are present. A B
There are no actual conflicts of interest. Potential conflicts of interest C D
Apparent conflicts of interest E F

1. Actual monetary conflicts of interest (A)

  • Case 1 This is a typical exemplary case as mentioned earlier: a researcher conducts a study on the hazards of smoking and receives funding from a cigarette manufacturer.

    • Resolution (individual): He/she does not conduct the experiment or he/she discloses the company that provided the funding.

    • Resolution (institution): The academic society publishing the journal requires the researcher to disclose the sponsor organization, if there was one, during the peer review or upon publication.

  • Case 2 A researcher is a large shareholder in a manufacturing firm, from which the equipment necessary for the research is expected to be purchased.

    • Resolution (individual): The researcher reveals the ownership of the stocks and does not participate in the selection process of the equipment.

    • Resolution (institution): If a researcher participating in the process of selecting the equipment owns stock in the relevant company, the institution should disclose it while establishing a detailed regulation for such matters.

  • Case 3 A researcher who owns some stocks in company A accepts a research and development project from a competitor company B.

  • Case 4 A researcher owns stocks of a company that has close ties with his or her research.

  • Case 5 A researcher is doing voluntary consulting work as a member of the Advisory Council on Science and Technology Policy and receives an offer to serve as a nonexecutive director at a company that is about to develop an advanced technology. The company plans to apply to the government for funding.

  • Case 6 A researcher obtains classified bid information while serving as a director of a college classrooms improvement project and selects the company owned by his or her own relative for the project.

2. Non-monetary and actual conflicts of interest (B)

  • Case 1 A researcher receives an offer to peer review a manuscript very similar to his or her own.

    • Resolution (individual): The researcher declines the offer or informs the editor-in-chief of the journal and asks for a re-evaluation of the situation.

    • Resolution (institution): Academic societies that publish a journal should develop detailed regulations for such situations.

  • Case 2 A researcher is invited to serve as an outside member of a college faculty hiring committee while the researcher's own advisee applies for the position.

    • Resolution (individual): The researcher declines the offer to serve as an outside search committee member.

    • Resolution (institution): The college should establish detailed regulations on the qualifications required to be an outside search committee member.

  • Case 3 A researcher serves as an outside college faculty search committee member while his or her college advisor's son or daughter is applying for a position.

  • Case 4 A researcher is asked to conduct a study evaluating the campaign promise of the presidential candidate he or she supports (and a government position is expected as a payoff).

  • Case 5 A researcher is asked to provide consultations on the evaluation of the chemical waste treatment of a firm. The researcher's own sibling works in the firm and is awaiting a promotion.

3. Potential monetary conflicts of interest (C)

  • Case 1 A researcher is highly likely to participate in an upcoming government project assessment commission and receives an invitation to give a talk with a high honorarium at a research institute that is planning to apply for the project.

    • Resolution (individual): The researcher does not accept the invitation. If the researcher, however, already accepted it, he or she should either reject serving as a commissioner or inform the government agency about the invited lecture.

    • Resolution (institution): Government agencies providing funding for the commission should establish detailed regulations regarding the selection process of the commissioners.

  • Case 2 A drug manufacturer purchases a large quantity of subscriptions to a particular pharmaceutical journal that leads to the financial benefit of the associated academic society.

    • Resolution (institution): The academic society should make it clear to its members and to the pharmaceutical company that such contributions should not affect the integrity of the research and also ensure that the budget is not going to rely too heavily on the company involved.

  • Case 3 A son or daughter of the executive of a company funding a study applies to the graduate school of the researcher's university.

4. Potential non-monetary conflicts of interests (D)

  • Case 1 Researchers had a tacit agreement not to hire females as new tenured professors regardless of their qualifications or professional suitability for the department.

    • Resolution (institution): The institution should clearly specify the evaluation criteria and establish regulations prohibiting sexual discrimination.

  • Case 2 An organization that the researcher is involved in conducts a study on the effectiveness of a drug manufactured by a pharmaceutical company owned by a relative (The researcher does not do the testing himself or herself).

    • Resolution (individual): The researcher notifies the relevant pharmaceutical company of his or her personal relationship with the organization and does not partake in the oversight of the study in any way.

    • Resolution (institution): The institution performing the research should create detailed regulations on the evaluators' qualifications.

  • Case 3 A researcher is asked to investigate the plagiarism allegations of a member of the same academic society.

  • Case 4 A university appoints a tenured professor, while he is an advisee of a professor who is influential to a research project the university is launching.

5. Apparent monetary conflicts of interest (E)

  • Case 1 Due to sudden financial troubles, a researcher secretly sold stocks of a firm that he/she has owned for a long time. The firm has recently participated in the bidding process for the sale of research equipment to the researcher's institution, and the researcher participates in the process.

    • Resolution (individual): Prior to the bid evaluation process, the researcher informs the other evaluation committee members of the fact that he or she has sold the stocks of the relevant company.

6. Apparent non-monetary conflicts of interest (F)

  • Case 1 A researcher serves as a reviewer of an important research project evaluation committee without knowing that one of the final candidates involved in this project was a high school classmate.

    • Resolution (individual): The disclosure of the researcher's personal information should be forbidden, and the researcher should avoid any direct and indirect contact with the candidates to prevent any unnecessary misunderstandings.

References

1 

SW HongSW LeeConflict of interestGwacheonMinistry of Science and Technology2007

2 

KB ParkResearchers' conflict of interest problems and their management plansSeoulScience and Technology Policy Institute2006

3 

WJ RohConflict of interest management policy[Internet]CheongjuCenter for Research Ethicscited 2014 Jan 15Available from: http://www.cre.or.kr/board/?board=responsibilities_articlesȆno=138256

Notes

[3] KB Park Researchers' conflict of interest problems and their management plans Seoul Science and Technology Policy Institute 2006 11 15. In this report, prohibition, disclosure, and management were suggested as resolutions for conflict of interest. In the current study, however, prohibition and disclosure are suggested as part of the management plans for minimizing or eliminating conflict of interest.

[4] Recited from WJ Roh Conflict of interest management policy [Internet] Cheongju Center for Research Ethics cited 2014 Jan 15 Available from: http://www.cre.or.kr/board/?board=responsibilities_articles&no=138256

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