1

I have recently come across this paper in Nature Communications: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17419-7

From the authors’ affiliations and corresponding email it seems like all authors are employees of Babylon (a health technology company) but the authors state in the “Competing interests” section that “The authors declare no competing interests.” even though they are evaluating their own product and give themselves an outstandingly good evaluation.

The journals “competing interests” policy states: “Funding Research support to the author or their institution (including salaries, equipment, supplies and other expenses) by organizations that may gain or lose financially through this publication. A specific role for the funder in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript, should be disclosed. Employment Recent (while engaged in the research project), present or anticipated employment by any organization that may gain or lose financially through this publication.” https://www.nature.com/documents/nr-competing-interests.pdf

I wonder how it is academically legal to still state “The authors declare no competing interests.”? Is this not the mother of all competing interests? Especially in a respected journal like Nature Communications?

EDIT:

I found this here:

"Editors should consider retracting a publication if:

[...]

The author(s) failed to disclose a major competing interest (a.k.a. conflict of interest) that, in the view of the editor, would have unduly affected interpretations of the work or recommendations by editors and peer reviewers."

https://publicationethics.org/node/19896

Should I contact the editor? Is this really a reason to retract this paper?

12
  • 4
    Yes, this is sufficient grounds to contact the editor. No, I suspect they would rather issue another correction.
    – Roland
    Dec 11 '20 at 9:13
  • 9
    The affiliation is in the open. A separate additional mention of a disclaimer may not be required in this case. I think such a disclaimer would apply more to otherwise undisclosed links. Definitely I do not see a retraction here. Maybe the reviewers should scrutinize such a paper with greater care. Dec 11 '20 at 11:22
  • 4
    I agree with Captain Emacs - the authors’ interest is out in the open. A professor with funding from the company would have to disclose it in the statement.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 11 '20 at 14:58
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs How are we supposed to know that the company is to benefit financially? To specifically declare that competing interest is the whole point of this. Dec 11 '20 at 20:23
  • Maybe I'm stupid, but how is your employer a "conflict of interest" or a "competing interest"? The employer is clear as you state yourself.
    – Buffy
    Dec 11 '20 at 22:00
-2

Assuming that their company can potentially gain from their research results, this is a clear violation of the signed competing interest declaration. The fact that the authors' affiliation is a company does in no way remove their obligation to declare a potential competing interest. In fact, Springer Nature specifically includes present employment as an example of a competing interest that must be declared:

Recent (while engaged in the research project), present or anticipated employment by any organization that may gain or lose financially through this publication.

Whether or not you should contact the editor is up to you and depends on how sure you are that their company does in fact have a competing interest. If so, then the violation is pretty obvious (although bear in mind that just because the authors work for a company in the field does not automatically mean they have a competing interest). If Nature Communications doesn't think this is relevant you can then follow up with a question here, how inappropriate the academic community thinks their lack of action is and how strong your case is that the company has a financial interest in these results. But I would expect their editor to act on this information and issue a correction or a retraction.

Springer-Nature is one of the world's most important and biggest publisher of scientific results. Their policy is not a weird aberration but represents the norm of a large scientific community. This requirement to explicitly declare any competing interests is standard in many scientific fields (such as biomedical research). For example, Elsevier also requires authors to explicitly declare their competing interests, and authors can only declare that they have no competing interest if they certify the following:

The authors certify that they have NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest, or non-financial interest in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

In the example here, the authors would not be able to sign such a statement because they do have an affiliation with an entity with an interest in the subject matter.

6
  • 1
    Help me understand this. How is working for and publishing, and naming your employer, competing with them. Yes, they will benefit financially. That is what companies do. They also publish a lot of stuff in the common interest. Where is the "competition"?
    – Buffy
    Dec 11 '20 at 22:02
  • 3
    @Buffy There is no competition between the authors and the company. The competition is between the objectivity the authors and the interests of the company. It's like a judge who has a conflict of interest in a trial because the accused is their nephew! If you want to read the actual policy nature.com/nature-research/editorial-policies/… Dec 11 '20 at 22:30
  • 1
    Unlike judges who have to recuse themselves we do allow researchers with a conflict of interest to publish their results. But the rule is that you have to explicitly declare that conflict for everyone to see! That's the whole point of that declaration. Dec 11 '20 at 22:34
  • Are you saying no employee of a company can publish anything on a subject that the company has a financial interest in, even when they disclose their affiliation? Seems a bit weird. Some sorts of science will just end.
    – Buffy
    Dec 11 '20 at 22:41
  • 1
    Of course you can publish with their affiliation. But that affiliation by itself says nothing about your conflict of interests. If you have one you have to declare the conflict of interest explicitly. That's the rule. And I'm not making this up. The rule is there black on white written by the publisher. Dec 11 '20 at 23:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.