Most journals and granting agencies have conflict of interest policies, though in ecology and evolution they’re often fairly non-specific, so that in practice much is left to the discretion of people with decision-making authority. For instance, the Journal of Ecology requires that authors disclose any interest or relationship, financial or otherwise, that might be perceived as influencing an author’s objectivity, but says that the existence of a conflict does not preclude publication. In its guidelines for reviewers, the ESA asks reviewers to decline to review if they don’t feel they can be objective, and to discuss with the editor any previous or present connection with the authors or their institution that might be perceived as creating a conflict.
Here’s my question: would you consider blogging with someone to be a conflict of interest?
The issue’s never come up for me. I haven’t been asked to review any of Brian or Meg’s papers or grant applications since they joined the blog. But it’s possible that it could come up, and I’m genuinely unsure what I’d do if it did. On the one hand, it’s quite common in science for people to review the work of people they know personally, even know quite well. In my experience, personal friendship isn’t ordinarily considered a conflict of interest.* On the other hand, in my experience you are ordinarily considered to have a conflict of interest (or at least a potential one) with anyone with whom you currently collaborate. So are Meg, Brian, and I just friends without any conflict of interest? Or are we “blogging collaborators” who have a conflict of interest that at least ought to be disclosed?
I guess I’d lean towards saying that blogging with someone isn’t a conflict of interest. I do feel like I could evaluate one of Brian or Meg’s papers or grants objectively. But I can also see where others might see that as inappropriate. So I dunno–what do you think?
One hypothetical but tricky wrinkle here is what to do about conflicts of interest if you blog with someone, and one or both of you use pseudonyms. How do you disclose the conflict of interest without breaking pseudonymity? (assuming for the sake of argument that you do consider it a conflict) I guess you just disclose that you have a conflict of interest with the person without saying why?
More broadly, what other ambiguous cases of conflict of interest have you encountered? Broadly speaking, I feel like conflicts of interest fall on a continuum from clear-cut conflicts (like “my research on this drug is sponsored by the drug’s manufacturer, who are paying me a gazillion dollars”) to clear-cut non-conflicts (like “I met the author once for thirty seconds”), with a lot of ambiguity in between. Including ambiguity about whether to even bother disclosing the possibility of a conflict.
*And if you say it should be, you’ve just made it a lot harder to find reviewers. There are many subfields of science in which everybody knows everybody to at least some extent. For instance, good luck finding someone whom I haven’t met, and who works with protist microcosms, to review one of my protist microcosm papers.