Declare conflict of interest or risk public confidence
Would knowing an academic has shares in a mining company affect how much trust you place in their comments on climate change? How about if the academic sat on the board? Or owned the company? All of these are potential conflicts of interest and all might influence how much weight the media and the public place on that expert’s opinion.
Yet sadly, as a new study just published in the Medical Journal of Australia shows, actually getting hold of this information about academics at universities around Australia is often not a simple process.
The survey of Australian universities by Simon Chapman and his colleagues showed that of the 25 institutions who responded, none required their academics to state their conflicts of interest on their website profile. Perhaps more importantly, although the researchers found public comment policies for 21 universities, “none required that staff declare potential conflict of interests to media when making a public comment”.
This means that journalists and the public are often in the dark about any external influences that might be affecting the design and outcomes of research, which in the long term can only undermine public trust in science and research more broadly.
In some ways the peer review processes of the academic journals can overcome this issue. The academic journals in which most university research is published have required full disclosure of conflicts of interest for some time. Interestingly, when I asked specialist journalists in Australia recently about why they read the full research papers rather than just relying on press releases, looking at potential conflicts of interest was among the key reasons journo’s gave for trawling through the research.
But when the media approaches an academic, it is often to comment on someone else’s research or on a breaking news story rather than to interview the academic on their latest research paper. This sort of ‘independent comment’ is a must for journalists but also comes without the added transparency of peer review and publication.
Thankfully my experience with many experts who work regularly with the media is that they are usually very upfront about declaring conflicts of interest if they have any – but the current system too often relies on the conscience of the academic to keep journalists in the know. Sadly relying on this type of self-reporting might mean that those with the least scruples, who are most at risk of being swayed by the cold hard cash, might also be the least inclined to disclose.
This study raises some crucial issues and perhaps both the media and the universities need to take some responsibility for the current state of play. Maybe if the media asked about conflicts of interest more, academics and universities would publicly list them. On this point I have to hold my hands up to a bit of a mea culpa. While as a rule the Australian Science Media Centre always asks about conflicts of interest on the controversial issues, it’s a question that can go unasked in some of the less contentious topics we field media inquiries on.
But in many cases, at least as far as the media is concerned, it is the university that provides an expert with credibility (“Prof x is an independent researcher from the University of x”).
It is also the university who has the most to gain by the media’s use of their experts and so the onus should really be on the institution to ensure that their credibility is warranted and their independence verified and that this information is readily available to the media and the public.
And finally in the interests of not being a pot calling a kettle non-transparent, here is a list of our sponsors – freely available on the AusSMC website for all to critique.
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