Conflict-of-Interest Policies in Addiction Science: The Spirit and Letter of the Law
Focusing on three letters sent to the editor on conflict-of-interest (COI) policies in addiction research several important questions are answered. These are
- who needs to declare a COI,
- what needs to be declared,
- how do financial-support acknowledgements differ from COIs and
- who needs to know.
The spirit of COI policies that are now included in most addiction journals (and recommended by the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors) is to make addiction research more transparent by having authors declare financial as well as personal conflicts (sometimes called competing interests). The letter of that law is often respected at the expense of its spirit when authors declare funding sources but fail to indicate whether those sources constitute a real or apparent COI. The spirit may also be violated when the agenda of a funding source is dictated by an organization that has a financial interest in the outcome of the research.
Who needs to declare a conflict of interest?
Applying the “reasonable person” standard to addiction research the following guidelines can be followed:
- include not only the name of the funder or the funding agency but also how that relates to a real, apparent, or potential COI,
- whether the association between the authors and the funding agency influences or has the potential to influence the outcome of the research, beyond the judgment of the authors,
- whether the Editor of the journal and its Field Editors and reviewers have a COI with respect to the present article.
What needs to be declared?
- whether the writer had, within a reasonable period of time, accepted funding from an individual or organization that might be construed as a real, apparent, or potential source of influence,
- whether there are other financial involvements that might influence judgment on the topic at hand,
- whether the writer had any nonfinancial reasons, such as personal or ideological differences, that might affect his or her objectivity.
Here authors must go beyond simply stating the name of COI and explain to the reader how it is a COI.
Currently there is a gap in COI where authors would declare a funding body, but not the COI relating to this funding which is apparent in a reasonable person context. Solutions suggested are for editors to to take responsibility for drafting COI statements, in consultation with the authors.
Managing agenda setting
Corporate interests have the potential to influence public debate and policy making by driving research away from questions that are the most relevant for public health. Agenda setting research organizations are established by addiction industries for this purpose.
- channel research attention away from meaningful and effective health policies,
- mislead the public and the scientific community about their corporate agenda to prevent the erosion of profits.
Suggested solutions in managing these issues are:
- heightened disclosure of funding sources and conflicts of interest in published articles to allow an assessment of commercial biases,
- increased funding for independent research,
- strict guidelines to regulate the interaction of research institutes with commercial entities.
Importance of declarations
Declarations are important to inform readers of real or potential bias, to protect journals and authors from the threat to credibility that comes from an apparent COI, and to help scholars and editors monitor threats to the integrity of science. The fields of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and drug research have been found to be especially vulnerable to influences from financial COIs.