Personal interests and the prospect of financial gain shouldnot, but
unfortunately can, improperly influence a researcher’s fundamental
obligation to truth and honesty. Although researchers should not, they
can find ways to delay unfairly a competitor’swork in order to
secure a patent or some other financial advantage for themselves.
Financial interests can provide a strong incentive to overemphasize
or underemphasize research findings or even to engage in research misconduct
(Chapter 2). Financial conflicts of interest are situations that create
perceived or actual tensions between personal financial gain and adherence
to the fundamental values of honesty, accuracy, efficiency, and objectivity
Financial interests are not inherently wrong. Researchers are permitted
to benefit financially from their work. A 1980 Congressional law known
as the Bayh-Dole Act encourages researchers and research institutions
to use copyrights, patents, and licenses to put research ideas to use
for the good of the public. Prior to this time, there were no uniform
policies regulating the ownership of ideas developed with public funding.
Bayh-Dole essentially gives that ownership to research institutions
as an incentive to put ideas to work for the overall good of society.
It not only approves of but,in fact, strongly encourages researchers
and research institutions to have financial interests as a way of ensuring
that the public’s investment in research is used to stimulate
While financial interests should not and in most instances do not compromise
intellectual honesty, they certainly can, especially if the financial
interests are significant. Universities are currently starting hundreds
of new businesses based on researchers’ ideas. Some of these businesses
will generate significant profits (hundreds of thousands to millions
of dollars each year). If the difference between commercial success
and failure rests on one key publication, the pressure to put the best
face on that publication can be considerable.
Financial conflicts also arise from the ever-present pressure researchers
have to secure funds to support their research. A private sponsor might
withdraw support from a project if it does not produce the “right”
results. Success in the stiff competition for research grants can rest
on having the “right” preliminary results. Research is expensive,
funding often in short supply. The pressure simply to survive, much
less profit personally, can and does create financial conflicts of interest.
policies. Concerns about
the actual or potential adverse effect of financial interests on research
prompted the Public Health Service (PHS) and the National Science Foundation
(NSF) to adopt conflict of interest policies in the mid-1990’s.
These policies require research institutions to establish administrative
- reporting significant conflicts before any research is undertaken;
- managing, reducing, or eliminating significant financial conflicts
of interest; and
- providing subsequent information on how the conflicts were handled.
Significant financial conflict is defined as:
- additional earnings in excess of $10,000 a year, or
- equity interests in excess of 5 percent in an entity that stands
to benefit from the research.
The financial interests of all immediate family members are included
in these figures.
local policies. Although the Federal requirements apply
only to PHS- and NSF-funded research, many research institutions have
adopted global policies that apply to all researchers. Many also use
different values for defining significant, to as low as any financial
interest. Researchers therefore should check their local conflict-of-interest
policy to find out when and what they are required to report. They also
need to keep in mind that many states have their own conflict-of-interest
policies, which apply to all state-paid employees.
societies and journal policies. A number of professional
societies have issued reports or made -recommendations on appropriate
ways to handle conflicts of interest. Similarly, more and more journals
now require researchers to disclose real or potential financial conflicts.
Sometimes disclosure must be made to the journal editor, who decides
what, if any, action is needed. Sometimes disclosures must be included
in the publication itself. Before submitting an article to a journal
for publication, researchers should carefully check and make sure they
have followed that publication’s conflict of interest policies.