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Pharmacogn Mag. 2010 April; 6(22): 71–73.
Published online 2010 May 5. doi:  10.4103/0973-1296.62888
PMCID: PMC2900064

Conflict of interest in peer-reviewed medical journals: The world association of medical editors position on a challenging problem

Conflict of interest in medical publishing exists when a participant's private interests compete with his or her responsibilities to the scientific community, readers and society. While conflict of interest is common, it reaches the level of concern when 'a reasonable observer might wonder if the individual's behavior or judgment was motivated by his or her competing interests'.[1] Having a competing interest does not, in itself, imply wrongdoing. However, it can undermine the credibility of research results and damage public trust in medical journals.

In recent years, the extent of conflict of interest in medical journal articles has been increasingly recognized. Medical journals and the popular media have published numerous examples of competing interests that seemed to have biased published reports.[24] Organizations have expressed concern for the effects of conflicts of interest on research,[5] publication[1,6,7] teaching[8] and continuing medical and nursing education.[9]

The World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) is one of the institutions engaged in this discussion. WAME was established in 1995[10,11] to facilitate worldwide cooperation and communication among editors of peer-reviewed journals, improve editorial standards and promote professionalism in medical editing.[12] Membership in WAME is open to all editors of peer-reviewed biomedical journals worldwide; small journals in resource-poor countries are well represented. As of December 2009, WAME had 1595 individual members representing 965 journals in 92 countries. WAME has broad participation as there are no dues and WAME activities are largely carried out through the member list serve and the member password protected website.

In March 2009, WAME released an updated policy statement, ‘Conflict of Interest in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals’.[1] It details the issues WAME believes journals should address when establishing their own policies for conflict of interest. The editors of this journal thought that the issues were important enough to share with its readers. A summary of the statement is presented in Table 1 and the full statement[1] can be found on WAME's website.[12]

Table 1
Summary of Key Elements for Peer-Reviewed Medical Journal's Conflict of Interest Policies

HOW DOES THIS STATEMENT DIFFER FROM EARLIER CONFLICT OF INTEREST STATEMENTS?

First, WAME expands the scope of competing interests. Other statements have been concerned almost exclusively with conflicts of interest related to financial ties to industry – companies that sell healthcare products. The assumption is that financial incentives are especially powerful and are not readily recognized without special efforts to make them apparent. WAME has extended the concept of financial conflict of interest to include the effects of clinical income. For example, physicians who earn their livelihood by reading mammograms or performing colonoscopies may be biased in favor of these technologies. WAME has also included non-financial conflicts of interest (or the appearance of one) related to scholarly commitment: ‘intellectual passion’, (the tendency to favor positions that one has already espoused or perhaps even established); personal relationships (the tendency to judge the works of friends/colleagues or competitors/foes differently because of the relationship); political or religious beliefs (the tendency to favor or reject positions because it affirms or challenges one's political or religious beliefs) and institutional affiliations (the tendency to favor or reject results of research because of one's institutional affiliations).

Second, WAME did not prescribe a universal standard for when meaningful conflict of interest exists. Rather, it defined and recommended elements of conflict of interest policies and encouraged journals to establish their own standards. WAME left operational definitions and standards on the basic issues to member journals, recognizing that journals exist in very different contexts across the globe, standards for conflict of interest are evolving and some journals already have well-established policies and standards. WAME does not presume to judge which conflicts require action and what the appropriate action may be, although its policy does offer factors to consider.[1] Obviously, excessive concern for these and more comprehensive lists of possible competing interests could paralyze the peer review and publication process and is not feasible. Editors must make judgments as to the strength of the conflict, but to do so must have uncensored information. Similarly, readers need transparency about conflicts, and therefore editors should publish with every article all relevant author disclosures.[1]

Third, WAME confirms the seriousness of failure to disclose conflict of interest by indicating that editors have a responsibility for investigating, and if relevant acting, if competing interests surface after a manuscript is submitted or published. The intent is that allegations of failure to declare conflicts of interest must be taken seriously by journals.

Finally, WAME has addressed in a single statement the conflicts of interests threatening all participants in the research and publication continuum, including authors, peer reviewers and editors. Conflicts between editors and journal owners, which might affect both the accuracy of articles and the credibility of journals, have been addressed in another WAME policy statement.[13]

WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT CONFLICT OF INTEREST IN MEDICAL JOURNALS?

Conflicts of interest cannot be eliminated altogether but it can be managed so that it has the smallest possible effects on journal content and credibility. The backbone of managing conflicts of interest is full written disclosure; without it, nothing else is possible. Currently, authors may not reveal all of their competing interests and even if they do, journals too often do not publish them,[14] so there is plenty of room for improvement. Even so, disclosure alone is an imperfect remedy; editors still must determine whether a conflict has sufficient potential to impair an individual's objectivity such that the article should not be published. Even more work may be needed on reviewers' and editors' competing interests, given their critical role as gatekeepers for the medical literature.

No statement will solve the conflict of interest problem, nor will it ever be solved altogether. As understanding of the problem and its management evolves, journals should be given latitude to establish their own standards, matching their policies to the best standards of their discipline and culture. WAME believes journals should make these policies readily accessible to everyone. All of us—editors, authors, reviewers and readers—should be paying more attention to conflict of interest than we have been. We hope this statement serves that purpose.

Acknowledgments

The WAME Statement on Conflict of Interest in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals was approved by the WAME Board in March 2009. Many thanks to the members of the WAME Ethics Committee and to the WAME Editorial Policy Committee for their insightful and helpful comments on an earlier version of the statement. Warm thanks to the WAME Board for their input and comments: Margaret Winker; Michael Callaham; John Overbeke; Tom Lang; Farrokh Habibzadeh; Adamson Muula (Malawi) and Rob Siebers (New Zealand).

Footnotes

“This Editorial may appear in other medical and biomedical journals whose editors are members of WAME.”

Phcog Mag. is a member of World Association of Medical Editors (WAME)

REFERENCES

1. WAME statement on conflict of interest in peer-reviewed medical journals.
2. Bekelman JE, Li Y, Gross CP. Scope and impact of financial conflicts of interest in biomedical research: a systematic review. JAMA. 2003;289:454–65. [PubMed]
3. Lexchin J, Bero LA, Djulbegovic B, Clark O. Pharmaceutical industry sponsorship and research outcome and quality: systematic review. BMJ. 2003;326:1167–70. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
4. Altman LK. For science's gatekeepers, a credibility gap. The New York Times. 2006.
5. Institute of Medicine “Conflict of interest in medical research, education, and practice”. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2009.
6. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) “Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals; ethical considerations in the conduct and reporting of research: conflicts of interest.
7. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) “Uniform format for disclosure of competing interests in ICMJE journals. 2009. [PubMed]
8. American Association of Medical Colleges. Industry funding of medical education: report of an AAMC task force. 2008.
9. Hager M, Russell S, Fletcher SW, editors. Continuing education in the health professions: improving healthcare through lifelong learning. Josiah Macy J Foundation. 2007 [PubMed]
10. Squires BP, Fletcher SW. The World Association of Medical Editors (WAME): thriving in its first decade. Science Ed. 2005;28:13–6.
11. Launching the World Association of Medical Editors: report of the conference to promote international cooperation among medical journal editors. 1995.
12. WAME Website http://www.wame.org.
13. WAME policy on the relationship between journal editors-in-chief and owners (formerly titled Editorial Independence)
14. Bhargava N, Qureshi J, Vakil N. Funding source and conflict of interest disclosures by authors and editors in gastroenterology specialty journals. Am J Gastroenterol. 2007;102:1146–50. [PubMed]

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