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This question is triggered by the recent allegations about Willie Soon failing to declare conflicts of interest in his papers on climate change. It got me wondering about situations where an obvious conflict of interest existed in the past, but doesn't exists anymore at the time where a paper is published.

Are there generally accepted practices on when to declare past conflicts of interest, or is this entirely up to each journal? Requiring disclosure of decades-old conflicts of interests does feel a bit silly to me, but making them disappear if they just happened shortly before one worked on a paper seems rather problematic as well.

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Usually the consideration is not about the funding received when the paper was published, but received while the work was being done. To illustrate: if a grant is won after a paper is submitted, but before it is published, it would be strange to see it declared as a conflict of interest.

But if a researcher persistently receives funding from a particular source, and then takes time off from that funding and uses those windows in funding to publish material in support of that source, then it would be inappropriate to stay silent about that funding: doing so would be against at least the spirit of the rules about declaring conflicts of interest; and may be explicity against the letter of the rules, when the papers contained work that was done during the funding period.

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I think the principle is fairly straightforward: if some factor exists that a (possibly imaginary) opponent of yours would consider a legitimate conflict of interest, then declare it. In other words, you need to consider what other people would regard as a conflict of interest, rather than what you view as a conflict of interest. If the journal requirements are even more stringent than this, then you still have to abide by it if you want to publish a paper with them.

In this particular case, it is a requirement of the journal

i. Disclosure of potential Conflict of interests

Authors must disclose all relationships or interests that could influence or bias the work. Examples of potential conflicts of interests that are directly or indirectly related to the research may include but not limited to the following:

Research grants from funding agencies (please give the research funder and the grant number)

  • Honoraria for speaking at symposia

  • Financial support for attending symposia

  • Financial support for educational programs

  • Employment or consultation

  • Support from a project sponsor

  • Position on advisory board or board of directors or other type of management relationships

  • Multiple affiliations

  • Financial relationships, for example equity ownership or investment interest

  • Intellectual property rights (e.g. patents, copyrights and royalties from such rights)

  • Holdings of spouse and/or children that may have financial interest in the work

In addition, interests that go beyond financial interests and compensation (non-financial interests) that may be important to readers should be disclosed. These may include but are not limited to personal relationships or competing interests directly or indirectly tied to this research, or professional interests or personal beliefs that may influence your research. The corresponding author will include a summary statement in the text of the manuscript in a separate section before the reference list. An examples of disclosures is shown below: Conflict of interest: Author A has received research grants from Company A. Author B has received a speaker honorarium from Company X and owns stock in Company Y. Author C is a member of committee Z. If no conflict exists, the authors should state: Conflict of interest: The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

This specification seems rather more rigorous than most journals, but it is pretty clear. It seems reasonable to say that the previous funding is indirectly related to the research in the paper in question. I would also say that all four authors of the paper being affiliated with think-tanks (e.g. the Heartland Institute) that are active in the political debate on climate change is a far more significant conflict of interest than the funding issue. Having said which, this is IMHO a fairly minor issue, which should be dealt with via due process, just like any other case. I am more concerned with scientists being harassed by FOIA requests, regardless of which "side" of the argument they support. It would be better all round if we could just stick to the science.

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