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.)

 

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