Collaborations between academic scientists and private sector companies are often symbiotic. Researchers receive the funding they need to perform their work, which could provide their funding parties with useful insights.
However, these financial ties have the potential to influence the conclusions reported by scientists — whether the skew is intentional or subconscious.
The funding itself is not inherently wrong, according to Dr. Laurent Brochard, a scientist at the U of T-affiliated Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science. But a lack of disclosure about funding sources, he noted, can make it difficult for a reader of a paper to identify potential biases in the research.
This lack of transparency is a significant problem in research, as reported by a paper co-authored by Brochard and Dr. Brian Kavanagh, which published in Intensive Care Medicine. They wrote that there is no consistent framework for the declaration of a conflict of interest in research.
Different journals provide differing guidelines; sometimes prior relationships are not disclosed or are deemed unimportant. It is often left up to the researcher to determine which relationship might constitute a conflict of interest.
A case study of unclear disclosure
The consequences of unclear disclosure were clearly exemplified when an expert panel was tasked with determining Canada’s national standards for health providers to prescribe opioids.
In 2017, The Globe and Mail reported that nine representatives of the 28-member panel had received remuneration from pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, the corporation many hold responsible for inciting the opioid crisis in Canada. But these conflicts of interest were not brought to the attention of the oversight committee — which was responsible for ensuring the independence and integrity of the panel — until after the panel issued its recommendations.
Canadian health care expenditures were valued at over $250 billion in 2018. Research reflecting positive outcomes related to a product could mean a financial windfall for the companies who provide funding, which could lead to biases among the researchers conducting sponsored studies.
A ‘conflict vitae’ as a potential solution
Brochard believes that “hidden conflicts compromise research,” and that “it should not be the author’s role to decide whether a conflict exist[s] or not.”
To overcome these issues, he supports solutions based on the ‘conflict vitae’ model proposed by Dr. Gordon Rubenfeld, a senior scientist at the Trauma, Emergency & Critical Care Research Program at the U of T-affiliated Sunnybrook Research Institute.
Like the curriculum vitae, a researcher’s ‘conflict vitae’ would be a single document detailing all past and present relationships between a researcher and financial partners.
A similar system has been implemented in France, according to the co-authors. There, all health care companies must declare their financial associations with health care professionals. The publicly-available database provides the amounts and purposes of the payments issued to the researchers.
This standardized approach would prevent an individual researcher from having to decide what to include when disclosing conflicts of interest, according to Brochard and Kavanagh. The document’s availability would also help readers assess the financial incentives associated with a study, they noted.
Other potential sources of bias — whether they be academic, political, or intellectual — can be difficult to assess for disclosure. Brochard wrote to The Varsity that perfection in disclosing all types of bias might not be achievable.
By making financial conflicts easier to disclose, however, the disclosure of conflicts of interest could improve public trust in scientists and better understanding of bias in research.