I suggested an interesting research question (exploratory data analysis) to my advisor and he really wants me to get started. However, I realized today in reading the agreement attached to the data enclave (with deidentified patient data or allegedly that), that there’s an obvious potential conflict of interest given that I founded a company sometime ago that focuses on a specific, but relevant patient population.

My advisor, to my knowledge, doesn’t know about this company. And this data set has millions. The other, non-government data set I’m considering has tens of thousands or thousands but may not have as immediate means of answering my research question, if it has them at all.

What should I tell my advisor?

I have this other research question that he liked that would not require the government dataset. Does it look wishy washy to say I want to return to that without saying exactly why? And this same COI would likely come up in the publication of any report I do with this lab group. (For context, I’m a first year MA student.)

I do have a third idea that I feel is as interesting and would not require me to access government data. So, should I pivot entirely and bring that up? I am almost certain that he would be interested in it based on what he’s mentioned in recent lab meetings. So, if I bring this up do I still add that the reason I am abandoning the other idea is a conflicting commercial interest?

He himself has disclosed a conflicting commercial interest in past work. But my preference is to keep that side of things as separate as humanly possible from academic work so there is no room for mishaps or cognitive dissonance. I also want separation because I don’t want to give the university ammunition to claim stake in anything on the entrepreneurial side.

Basically, I really need help in figuring out how to redirect him without sabotaging my academic/research future with him re letters of recommendation, etc?

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    This is not something you can ignore and hope it all works out. Please contact your compliance officer ASAP. Commented Jun 13, 2022 at 17:09

2 Answers 2


It’s curious that you are trying to do the ethical thing and avoid putting yourself in a compromising situation vis-a-vis the conflict of interest, but you’re going about it in a way that is itself ethically compromised, by hiding from your university the existence of your startup. And your stated rationale for this,

[…] so there is no room for mishaps or cognitive dissonance. I also want separation because I don’t want to give the university ammunition to claim stake in anything on the entrepreneurial side.

does not hold water. I’ll ignore the vague “mishaps and cognitive dissonance” part. As far as “ammunition”, the way to not give the university ammunition to claim stake in anything is by carefully reading all the relevant university policies, and making sure (including consulting a lawyer if necessary) that you are fully in compliance, for example with any requirement to disclose and/or get approved for any of your external activities, and that the university doesn’t have any basis to claim ownership of any part of your venture.

Once you have ascertained that, you will have nothing to hide, and no reason to have to bend over backwards looking for plausible-sounding (but disingenuous) explanations to give your advisor for why you want to avoid the project you already suggested to him.

To summarize, the obvious way forward is to tell the truth. If you feel like you have to hide things to avoid your advisor becoming suspicious of your motivations, to me that’s a sign that you’re doing something that’s quite possibly unethical — like founding a startup that your university can legally lay an ownership claim to but not disclosing its existence. If that is the case, my advice would be to drastically rethink your approach, since one way or another I expect that your behavior will come back to bite you in a very unpleasant way in the not-too-far-off future.


Your institution almost certainly has a policy regarding conflicts of interest that requires you to disclose potential conflicts and develop a management plan if conflicts exist.

Note that conflicts of interest refers to interests conflicting, not to bad behavior itself. In this case, that would be your financial interests involved in this company, and interests involving protection of research subjects, research integrity, etc. The action that is "best for" your personal finances might be different than the action that is "best for" research integrity: that means there is a conflict of interest.

The presence of a conflict of interest does not mean you have acted or will act in a way that benefits you privately or violates academic integrity, rather, it means that you do have interests that potentially conflict, and it's necessary to come up with a plan for managing those interests. The details of that plan will depend on the nature of the conflict and the possibilities for mitigation.

However, failure to disclose conflicts of interest is itself a major breach of ethics, is almost certainly against the policies of your institution, and could easily get you expelled or even create further legal consequences, possibly even criminal penalties (the details will depend on your specific jurisdiction, and aren't really on-topic here).

It's not up to you to separate these things on your own: you must disclose so that the decision of what is appropriate separation can be made by someone who is unbiased. You are incapable of doing this yourself. The goal is not merely to prevent research work from being tainted, but to remove any reasonable suspicion or speculation, a much higher bar.

You need to find out what the specific policies are at your institution and make sure you are in compliance immediately. Likely your advisor can help you with this and direct you to the appropriate actions, but it's not only their responsibility but yours, and it is very unlikely that you can resolve these potential conflicts by disclosing only to your advisor: the institution needs to know about it, too.

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    Thanks for clarifying the meaning of "conflict of interest" in your answer! I have noticed quite a few (thoroughly confused) answers based on the premise "conflict of interest = unethical behaviour" for other questions in this community. Commented Jun 13, 2022 at 13:25

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