Improving researchers’ conflict of interest declarations

Transparency of financial interests is expected in medical research, but our ability to assess bias is limited because disclosures are incomplete, inconsistent, and difficult to access at scale. True transparency involves more than just making conflict of interest disclosures available; they also need to be accessible, accurate, complete, and clear about relevance. There have been several calls for standardising the reporting of conflict of interests12 since the Institute of Medicine first recommended it 10 years ago.3 The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) recommend that journal editors require published statements declaring authors’ conflicts of interest.45

Despite the apparent policy consensus, disclosure practices are plagued by recurring problems with non-disclosure and inconsistent reporting. The result is that the policy conversation is fixated on the shortcomings of the disclosure system rather than on how to deal with relationships that threaten research integrity. The ICMJE is consulting on updating its declaration form to improve transparency, completeness, and consistency of disclosures. We also need to enforce accessible, accurate reporting and develop processes to assess relevance so that we can move the debate forward, from being about greater transparency to being about greater independence from commercial influence.

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