Date Published: September 30, 2008
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Partial Text: Imagine you’re a peer reviewer who’s received a request to referee a paper. The paper reports the results of a study using cell lines derived from an aborted fetus as a diagnostic tool in identifying certain viral infections. You are also a member of a religious organization morally opposed to fetal cell research. In your review, you raise questions about the study’s validity and methodology that might undermine the paper’s chance of publication.
Everyone has competing interests; financial or private, or both. The main problem with competing interests is nondisclosure . As with all competing interests, it is not possible to reliably judge our own biases. Instead, declaring them allows others to make informed judgments about whether the competing interests are relevant or not.
Nevertheless, it is possible and, we believe, necessary to encourage openness in addressing some of the clearer sources of non-financial bias. Journals can’t police non-financial competing interests any more than they can police commercial interests. But they can develop clear and explicit policies that outline definitions of non-financial conflicts of interests and expectations for author, reviewer, and editorial behavior. PLoS has a comprehensive competing interest policy (http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/competing.php) that builds upon those of other organizations such as the Council of Science Editors (http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/editorial_policies/policies_endorsement.cfm), the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (http://www.icmje.org/#conflicts), and WAME (http://www.wame.org/resources/policies#fundres). Our policy states that no decision on papers submitted to PLoS journals will be made until the competing interests—financial, personal, and professional—of all authors are declared, and that we will publish all relevant positive and negative statements of competing interests. Reviewers are required to declare any interests that might interfere with their objective assessment of a manuscript, and these are considered by the editors in determining the suitability of the reviewer.
One impediment to good policy in this area is a lack of evidence. The development and implementation of explicit policies on non-financial competing interests will clearly benefit from being based upon strong evidence of the extent, nature, and impact of private interests. Although the evidence base on commercial influences on the scientific and editorial enterprises continues to mount, very little research has tackled non-financial competing interests. There are a few notable exceptions. In a systematic review, Luborsky and colleagues found that a researcher’s allegiance to a given school of thought exerted a bias on the study design and outcomes of psychotherapy research comparable to that which has been documented for financial interests . Examining the editorial process, Goldsmith and colleagues reviewed 228 consecutive manuscripts submitted to the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2003  and found the odds of acceptance to be two times higher for manuscripts from which authors had excluded reviewers, compared to those whose authors had not done so. Quoted in Science , Goldsmith said “Excluding reviewers ends up being very, very important. People know their assassins.” Similarly, separate studies by Sara Schroter  and Liz Wager  support the idea that reviewers favorably biased toward the authors are more likely to recommend acceptance and less likely to advocate rejection than the (presumably) more objective editor-selected reviewers.