Fuzzy COI

May 21 2012 Published by under reviews and reviewing

A reader who is/was acting as guest-editor for a special issue of a journal wrote to ask some questions about whether s/he could solicit manuscripts from certain colleagues, advisors (past/present) etc. My opinion: s/he could solicit manuscripts from colleagues etc. but not act as editor for manuscripts involving them. Another editor should handle those cases. I know some journals don't worry so much about conflicts of interest of that sort, particularly in small fields in which everyone knows everyone, but I think it is best to avoid such real and perceived conflicts of interest (COI) with advisors, close colleagues, and so on if at all possible.

The question got me thinking (again) about some of the fuzzier types of COI. Although funding agencies and journals may have detailed definitions of what constitutes a COI, there are some situations that may not be *official* conflicts, but maybe sort of are, depending on the situation/people. What are these, and what to do about them?

If you have an official, unambiguous COI, you should not do a review/edit the manuscript, review the proposal etc., but if you have a sort-of-maybe (fuzzy) COI, you can reveal it to the program directors (for example, NSF provides a little box for this very thing in its review forms) or in a confidential message to an editor. What are some examples of these?

For discussion purposes, here is a partial list of situations in which I had a 'connection' of some sort to an author or proposal PI -- perhaps not a strict COI but still a connection that in some cases maybe may need to be revealed (or not, as the case may be).

- Some of the undergrads in the classes/labs I taught as a grad student teaching assistant are now professors. I have encountered a few of them professionally over the years. I don't consider this a conflict of interest, although there are some ways in which the TA-student interaction has affected my opinion of these people. In one case, I declined to review a manuscript because the primary author had been a very obnoxious and high-maintenance undergraduate. I thought my personal dislike might interfere with my review, so I declined the review. I didn't give a reason, so in this case I managed my own COI.

- Some of the undergrads I have taught as a professor are now professors. If they just took a class from me and I didn't advise them in research or have any particular professional interaction other than as teacher and student in a class I might reveal the connection if it seemed relevant, but it wouldn't stop me from doing reviewing/editing unless (as in the case above) I had some particular unobjective opinion. That opinion isn't necessarily negative. For example, if an undergrad dove into a raging river to rescue drowning kittens, I would have a very high opinion of that person and might be unable to be objective about their scientific work.

- Some of the undergrads I advised in research are now professors. I have been sent their papers and proposals to review etc. In one case, the NSF program director, whom I consulted, said that I should do the review if I felt I could be objective and not do it if I felt I couldn't. S/he said that I should mention the possible COI in the confidential box for revealing such things, if I felt so inclined.

- Some of my husband's collaborators, former students, and postdocs show up in my particular corner of the Science universe from time to time, although we are in different subfields. For example, not long ago I was sent a proposal to review by someone with whom I had no known COI, and only once I got deep into the proposal did I realize that I did in fact have a major COI with this proposal. If the proposal was funded, my husband would benefit financially, even if indirectly. Having a Significant Other in the same field opens up COI possibilities all over the place. When one of us has served on an NSF panel, the other one has to provide a list of COIs so that the panel-spouse will not deal with his/her COI-in-laws. Some of those COIs might seem fuzzy (for example, if I have no idea my husband is working with a particular person), but in fact these can be quite unfuzzy.

- and then there are these miscellaneous ones that plot at various locations on the COI fuzziness spectrum: I have been sent manuscripts/proposals by members of my PhD committee (revenge opportunity?!!), former grad students I have helped advise (formally or informally) at other universities, someone who married a friend of mine from college (I introduced them!), former summer interns, and close science friends with whom I have never collaborated. I have declined to review/edit in each of those cases except one: that involving my former committee members, and in those cases I tried to decline but the powers-that-be were quite insistent that they wanted my reviews and would take into account my sort-of COI.

As we get older and our networks of collaborators and science friends and former students expand, opportunities for COI can increase dramatically with time. Eventually it may get so that we can only review or edit things by the 12 people we have never even heard of, in which case we might then have to fight against the unfair and unobjective thought that "If I haven't heard of them, they can't be any good." Well, I know people who think that way, but I am not there yet and hope I don't go anywhere near there.

Meanwhile, in terms of managing the plethora of COIs that I encounter in my career, I will continue to do what most of us do: make it up as I go along. OK, I will do a bit more than that: I will attend the required but useless 'ethics' training sessions, get advice from respected colleagues, and try to do the right thing, or at least what seems to be the most right thing, or the less worse thing. (And no, I don't think turning down any and all review requests and quitting as a journal editor is a reasonable option.)


10 responses so far

  • profguy says:

    I disclose these kinds of conflicts and I tend to find that editors and review panel members are only concerned about the most serious ones, and otherwise want me to do the reviews. Maybe my field is smallish, or maybe they are just perpetually hard up for reviewers. Most of the more minor ones you bring up I wouldn't even bother mentioning at this point.

    Just knowing someone (whether you like or dislike them) is not a conflict! After being in the field for a while I think one knows most of the personalities as well or better than people you just had as students in a class. If that were disqualifying, no one could review anything past a certain not-very-advanced age.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    This kind of COI orthodoxy would never work in the preclinical substance abuse fields. Far too much interconnectedness of the people. Small field, I guess.

  • anon8 says:

    What about this situation: someone you vaguely know asks you for feedback on their grant or manuscript, and you give them some. Then the manuscript comes back to you for review. Is this a COI?

  • Science Professor says:

    That's a good example of a fuzzy COI. I can say that as a journal editor, if someone acknowledges the feedback of particular people (for example, in an acknowledgments section), I do not ask those people for a review even if the authors suggest them as reviewers. If someone is not listed but, when I ask them for a review, they tell me they have already provided comments, they don't end up doing the formal review (in most cases by their own choice). As a reviewer, if someone asks me for feedback on a manuscript or proposal before submission and I give them detailed comments, I will decline to review it in a formal way (but not necessarily out of concern for ethics, mostly out of concern for my own time). If I only provide general comments and I am willing and interested to do a formal review if asked, I may do it (but would say that I have seen an earlier version).

    I certainly hope this post didn't imply that I don't review/edit papers and proposals by people I know. I evaluate these situations on a case-by-case basis. If I know someone (but they are not a close colleague) and I feel I can be objective, I will do the review.

  • ecologist says:

    (Tried to post this earlier but the server seemed to be down. I hope it doesn't show up twice).

    Anyway ... I think that we need to pay more attention to the word "interest" in COI. It's a legal term with a technical definition, and I think that we tend to apply it more broadly than is appropriate.

    Simplest case: I am making a decision for my university about buying widgets, and I also happen to own a widget company. My employer has an interest (getting the best widgets for the best price), and I am supposed to be furthering that interest. But I also have a personal interest (selling my widgets). There is a potential conflict between these interests. To resolve it, I should not be involved in the widget decision.

    Slightly more subtle case: I am reviewing a paper for a journal. The journal's interest is to publish good stuff and not publish bad stuff. As a reviewer, I have a professional ethical obligation to further that interest. If the author of the paper is my collaborator, I also have an interest in the successful publication of her paper, because it would help the reputation of my research group, and hence me. If the author is my former graduate student, I might have an interest in the publication of the paper because his success would also make me look good. If the author is my biggest competitor, I might have an interest in the (failure of) publication of the paper, because that will make my competitor less competitive for funding.

    In each case, I have an *interest* in the fate of the paper that doesn't coincide with the interest of the journal.

    But in other cases, I find it hard to identify the actual interest that is supposed to be in conflict. If the author of the paper was a student in my undergraduate class, what interest of mine is furthered by the publication or rejection of the paper? If someone I vaguely know has asked me for comments on the paper, what interest of mine is furthered by acceptance or rejection?

    So, my recommendation is to actually think about the interests that you might have in the fate of the paper, proposal, etc. and see if they are in conflict. I have found that editors and program managers are happy to hear about possible COIs and to advise on whether they feel that they are genuine conflicts, so don't be afraid to inquire.

    I don't pretend to have all the answers to this question, and I agree with the sentiments in the final paragraph of the post.

  • anon says:

    I recall that the NSF would ask applicants to list people with whom they might have a COI - these would include former mentors, or anyone with whom you have published within the last 5 years. Note the FIVE year limit. Seems anyone else beyond that is fair game.

    I think it's important to be willing to review as many papers as you can, especially considering that some editors, study section officers, etc, are finding it difficult to find reviewers. I would never qualify a manuscript by a former undergrad as a COI. We used to have to grade these folks, whether we liked them as people or not. What's the difference when reviewing a manuscript? Either it sucks or it doesn't.

    • ecologist says:

      The current NSF policy is to list all collaborators and co-authors for the previous 48 months, all co-editors of journals or proceedings in previous 24 months, all thesis advisees for previous 5 years, along with one's own grad advisor and postdoc sponsor[s].

      One problem this raises is caused by the rise in the number of papers with eleventy authors. NIH seems to be modifying their conflict information for reviewers to exclude co-authorship as parts of large "consortia".

      • proflikesubstance says:

        NSF is also limiting the COI for many-author papers. They are now asking you to identify only those authors you reasonably collaborated with - excluding those who you share authorship with but never interacted with.

        Also, grad degree supervisors are a "life conflict" (perhaps a loaded term) whereas postdoc supervisors are a 5 year conflict.

  • sciencecanary says:

    Like the post says, I too only count a former undergrad as a COI if I really hated them (or if they have turned into an official COI through some form of collaboration of course).

  • Mark P says:

    "As we get older and our networks of collaborators and science friends and former students expand, opportunities for COI can increase dramatically with time"

    How true this is. At some point you could review something by anyone, and all the experts get taken off the table. My own opinion is that obvious issues aside (current or recent collaborations or co-authored papers), one should use ones' own judgement when things are not spelled out clearly. If I think I can't be objective (either way), I say no. But refusing to review a manuscript by a former postdoc after ten plus years, or someone who I count as a friend through interactions at meetings, for example, simply because I know the person well, is going beyond what I think is essential.