What's It To Me? Self-Interest and Evaluations of Financial Conflicts of Interest

Samuel Bruton, University of Southern Mississippi
Donald Sacco, University of Southern Mississippi

Published by 'Research Ethics' at 10.1177/1747016117739940.


Disclosure has become the preferred way of addressing the threat to researcher objectivity arising from financial conflicts of interest (FCOIs). This article argues that the effectiveness of disclosure at protecting science from the corrupting effects of FCOIs—particularly the kind of disclosure mandated by US federal granting agencies—is more limited than is generally acknowledged. Current NIH and NSF regulations require disclosed FCOIs to be reviewed, evaluated, and managed by officials at researchers’ home institutions. However, these reviewers are likely to have institutional and personal interests of their own that may undermine the integrity of their evaluations. This paper presents experimental findings suggesting that such interests affect third-party assessments of FCOIs. Over 200 participants gauged the ethical significance of various hypothetical yet realistic FCOIs in academic research settings. Some of them were led to believe they had a small personal interest in allowing conflicted research to proceed, whereas others’ personal outcomes were unrelated to the conflicted research. The results show that motivated reasoning influences FCOI evaluations, such that those with personal interest in conflicted research provided more lenient evaluations of researcher FCOIs. These findings imply that the capacity of federally mandated FCOI disclosure procedures to enhance bias-free science is quite restricted.