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Everything You Need to Know about Conflicts of Interest

Part II: It’s Not Just About the Money
March 3, 2017 | Comments

In our new article on Psychology Today, we raise the issue of conflicts of interest that don’t involve money. We call these “emotional conflicts of interest.” They represent instances in which an author has an emotional relationship with his or her topic, creating the possibility of biases that may be just as strong as those produced by financial incentives. Examples include the reviewer of a paper or book in which the reviewer’s work or ideas are criticized or the discussion section of a paper written by an author who has based his or her reputation on a particular hypothesis or treatment approach. In many cases the author is not aware that these conflicts may be biasing his or her approach.

What’s key here is understanding that there are other forms of “currency” in science and medicine that are not strictly financial. The easiest one to recognize is reputation. Reputation is a powerful form of currency, especially in academic science and medicine. Prominent scientists and clinical researchers often become known in their fields for certain findings and subsequently for espousing certain points of view. While espousing these points of view does not result in immediate financial gain, these researchers often become quite attached to these ideas and their belief in them gets continually reinforced by others’ expectations that they will continue to express them. In other words, their very professional identity becomes bound up in certain findings, making it increasingly difficult for them to objectively evaluate any evidence that might prove them wrong.

When such conflicts are recognized, it is often assumed that a simple statement suffices to deal with the issue. But is stating “the author of the book I am reviewing criticized me” a sufficient safeguard for the reader? Just as is the case with financial incentives, transparency alone may not be enough to ensure that emotional conflicts of interest are not slanting the science we consume.

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