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.
I’ve been pondering this conflict of interest thingie a lot as this have come up Finnish public discussion many times. There was a professor funded by fur industry who testified in parliamentary committee on wellbeing of fur animals (he was pro-fur industry), a grad student who commented in television news on a semipolitical event which was organised by political group he was loosely connected to and a month ago two scientists wrote a opinion piece pro a semimedical treatment by a firm which they had financial contacts.
In any of these cases, I think everything would’ve been okay, if they had just disclosed all their conflicts of interest, no matter how minute they seemed. The same in this case would make sense: tell the editor/application handlers/whoever is really responsible, that there’s this potential conflict of interest and they can decide. It’s always uncomfortable if someone raises the issue afterwards. In some cases blogging might be a conflict of interest and in other cases not – it’s not like these issues would be yes-no questions – but at least the scientist has washed their hands in this issue.
Yes, I see the rationale for disclosing anything that might possibly be considered a conflict of interest. And you’re probably right that nondisclosure of serious potential conflicts of interest is a bigger problem than the one I’m worrying about. But that still leaves open the question of what actually *is* a conflict of interest. At least one sufficiently serious that others will act on the knowledge of it, for instance by discounting your opinion because they fear it might be biased. If you just say “disclose everything and let others decide what’s a conflict”, ok, but what should others decide?
I only think relationships qualify as a conflict of interest if you, personally, have something to gain or lose based on the author’s success. I think most of us are capable of separating “wanting a person to be successful because they are your friend” from judging the quality of their work. I can’t really see how you would gain from Meg or Brian having a paper published or a grant funded, so in that sense I would say collaborative blogging is not a COI.
I think this issue can be resolved by thinking of blogs as little mini-journals. In fact there are blogs like Scientia Salon that allow submissions that they occasionally send out for peer-review. Also there are highly cited resources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that live completely online, and could just as well be in the blog format if that medium had been established when it was founded in 1995.
With that in mind, you can think of yourself as editors and contributors to the mini-journal Dynamic Ecology. Would serving on the editorial board of the same journal be a conflict of interest? Would contributing articles to the same journal be a conflict of interest? Seems like the answer is no. If you guys were actively writing joint blog posts (and I don’t think the Friday links count) then it could be seen as a potential conflict of interest.
In something that I think indicates how desperate journals are for reviewers, when I’ve indicated a potential conflict to a journal, they have still always said they want me to do the review. (That is in cases where I felt that the potential conflict was not one that would lead to me having a bias. In cases where it’s a close friendship or something where I feel like I wouldn’t be an objective reviewer, I just decline the review request.)
“In something that I think indicates how desperate journals are for reviewers…”
That’s the problem with a conflict of interest policy that basically just leaves everything to the discretion of the journal. Having said that, I’ve never heard of a case of an ecology journal exercising its discretion really poorly.
And yeah, I’m like you: if I feel like I can’t be objective, I decline the review request.