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This is a question about work and publications that happen in public-private partnership. I am currently employed by a University, and seconded half of the time in a startup. I am working on a scientific project with outcome that are of interest for both the uni lab and the startup.

The paper is authored by me, colleagues from the lab and the startup. Its a method-oriented paper, explaining a new method of analysis that will be used by the startup for their customers and the lab for their projects. I think that we have competing interest to declare (based on what I saw in the Nature guideline):

  • I work part time in the startup.
  • Other authors work for the startup.
  • I work under the assumption, as other postdocs funded in the same way, that there may be employment from the startup at the end of the postdoc
  • The published work may financially impact the startup (as it adds a new method in their tools)

So I spoke with my lab leader, and they said that there is no competing interest and we should declare none. They argued that each author affiliation is clear, that the work was conducted objectively, without bias and that we paid attention to the startup influence so there is no problem. Situation escalated as they thought that I was implying that they were doing unethical work. They spoke with our lab scientific integrity officer (without me), and the officer aligned with the leader view rather than mine.

I am a bit lost with what to do, especially with the backup from the scientific integrity officer. It seems that my view on competing interest is too harsh, so any external feedback on this will be helpful.


Details on the founding:

This funding is from the French government and Europe, that allows to hire (at least) postdocs or engineer for projects with a private partner (company, startup, etc).

This measure is intended to preserve companies' R&D investment capacities, support the employment of young graduates and strengthen the links between public and private research. The aim is to preserve or create more than 2,000 R&D jobs by strengthening public-private collaborations.

The State covers part of the remuneration of R&D personnel assigned to this collaboration: company employees working part-time in a research laboratory; employees of a company undertaking part-time doctoral training in a research laboratory; young graduates at master's level or young doctors hired by a research laboratory and hosted part-time in a company.

Source (in french):

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  • One competing interest might be that the company wants confidentiality on the results (something like trade secret) and you want to publish. Is there any of that here? Or the possibility of patents and such?
    – Buffy
    Mar 16, 2023 at 17:06
  • No, not from what I heard at least. The company rely on published scientific results to argue that they are employing cutting edge approaches.
    – cococo
    Mar 16, 2023 at 21:31

1 Answer 1

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They argued that each author affiliation is clear, that the work was conducted objectively, without bias and that we paid attention to the startup influence so there is no problem.

That's not how conflict of interest works. Conflict of interest means your interests conflict, it doesn't mean that the conflict has caused you to behave unethically. The purpose of conflict of interest disclosure is to provide the information for other people to decide what the impact of any bias should be on their interpretation of the paper. The person with the conflict doesn't get to self-determine whether they were influenced.

If you're employed by a company and are an author on a paper that could affect that company financially, you have a conflict of interest and should declare it. Disclosure doesn't mean wrongdoing. Failure to disclose is wrongdoing.

The only way I'd possibly buy your lab leader's argument would be that by declaring affiliations that include the company and declaring any funding from the company that supported the work, you've effectively already disclosed and do not need a separate statement. However, I see no downside to the highest level of transparency.

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  • Thanks for your answer. The highest level of transparency was one of my argument, I agree that there should be no downside. My two problems are 1) I didnt manage to make it clear as we argue that it was about perception and not self blaming some bias 2) the scientific integrety officer opposition. I dont think I should challenge their authority on that subject.
    – cococo
    Mar 16, 2023 at 21:38
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    @cococo You might find it easier to argue that you should communicate to the journal about this: especially if your affiliations already clearly identify you as employees of a company, it seems like it would be reasonable to ask them "Hey, do we need to also write a disclosure statement, given the affiliations are clear?" Then, the journal's opinion will bind your supervisor and coauthors. However, given your junior position and the opinion of the "scientific integrity officer", it also isn't a hill I'd die on, as long as it's somehow clear you are employees of a company.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 17, 2023 at 15:04

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