Undisclosed conflicts of interest
Public trust in the peer review process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled during writing, peer review, and editorial decision making. Conflict of interest exists when an author (or the author’s institution), reviewer, or editor has financial or personal relationships that inappropriately influence (bias) his or her actions (such relationships are also known as "dual commitments", "competing interests", or "competing loyalties").
These relationships vary from those with negligible potential to those with great potential to influence judgment, and not all relationships represent true conflict of interest. The potential for conflict of interest can exist whether or not an individual believes that the relationship affects his or her scientific judgment. Financial relationships (such as employment, consultancies, stock ownership, honoraria, paid expert testimony) are the most easily identifiable conflicts of interest and the most likely to undermine the credibility of the journal, the authors, and of the research itself. However, conflicts can occur for other reasons, such as personal relationships, academic competition, and intellectual passion.
All participants in the peer review and publication process must disclose all relationships that could be viewed as presenting a potential conflict of interest. Disclosure of these relationships is also important in connection with editorials and review articles, because it can be more difficult to detect bias in these types of publications than in reports of original research. Editors may use information disclosed in conflict of interest and financial interest statements as a basis for editorial decisions. Editors should publish this information if they believe it is important in judging the manuscript.
[International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) – Feb. 2006]
Note: the procedures below are similar to those for research standards violations.
The complainant must be made aware that the matter cannot be investigated unless the journal editor informs the corresponding (or complained-about) author (due process) and possibly the institution or company at which the research took place. In the communication to the corresponding/complained-about author (see Form letter A1(opens in new tab/window)), the editor should indicate that the matter is likely to be referred to the institution or company where the research took place, the standard-setting body (if relevant), the institution or company which provided undisclosed financial support (if relevant), or any other relevant institution or agency (for example a funding agency) unless the author provides a reasonable explanation (accepted as reasonable by the editor).
Frequently asked questions
Then a note, corrigendum or journal retraction procedures are appropriate remedies. Note that there may still be disagreement concerning the appropriate description of the wrong-doing.
It may be appropriate for the note to simply indicate that a potential conflict of interest should have been disclosed.
If the disclosure is significant enough to potentially change the conclusions (in the judgment of the editor), then a more critical statement may be appropriate (with legal review for defamation).
Ultimately the editor may need to make a judgment as to the appropriate language for the statement, if there is no consensus, and should do so in consultation with Elsevier staff.
Then the editor will have to consider whether the author’s explanation is reasonable. Normally the editor would also inform the complainant of the author’s explanation and seek comment (see Form letter B).
Then the editor should refer the matter to the institution or company employing the author/co-authors noting the allegation of misconduct, and possibly if relevant the standard-setting body or funding entity (see Form letter C)
Then the editor should inform the corresponding/complained-about author and complainant that the editor will seriously consider the finding of the institution (through a corrigendum or Elsevier's retraction and removal procedures).
This should be reviewed with the complainant (perhaps the complainant is better placed to make the complaint directly with the institution).
Then the editor will be expected to make a determination, in his or her reasonable judgment, as to the underlying facts, and to make a recommendation to Elsevier (and possibly the society for a society journal), which Elsevier staff will implement normally through a corrigendum or the retraction and removal process. It may be advisable for the editor in this fact-finding process to request the views and comments of third parties who may be expected to have knowledge of the facts alleged by the complainant.
These are available for a second opinion (*).