Don’t Get Conflicted: What to Do When Your Source Has a COI

 

Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The resources and labor to do research require money, which has to come from somewhere. And in many fields, the people behind the work may profit from study outcomes in ways beyond research recognition—for example, by licensing technology or consulting with companies. Researchers also have lives outside of work: loved ones, enemies, desires.

Often, the realities of work and personal life can result in a conflict of interest—that is, anything that can influence a scientist’s ability to design an experiment and accurately report the results. As a science journalist, part of your job is to identify when a source has a conflict of interest. Finding one doesn’t mean you need to throw the source out—far from it. But it will involve disclosing the conflict to your readers and seeking out other points of view.

 

What Counts as a Conflict of Interest?

A clear conflict arises when a study or researcher is funded by a source whose core purpose is something other than scientific exploration. Sometimes this mismatch is very clear: “The area I am most suspicious of is if it’s an industry funding a study that is not in the business of health, like Coca-Cola funding obesity studies,” says Tara Haelle, a freelance journalist in Dallas, Texas, who covers health.

But funding from a foundation that includes research as part of its mission isn’t necessarily conflict-free, either. It’s useful to check the foundation’s other work to see whether it has a history of funding peer-reviewed research and if it has a particular ideological bent. “There are organizations that are opposed to action on climate change, and they have funded research in the past that has called into question whether humans are causing climate change, or the degree to which they are causing climate change,” notes Richard Monastersky, the chief features editor at Nature, citing the book Merchants of Doubt.

The type of funding can matter, too. An unrestricted grant that allows researchers at a university to spend the money however they want presents less of a conflict than if some of the authors on a paper are employed by the company directly, says Teresa Carr, a freelance science and health journalist based in Golden, Colorado, who writes Undark’s Matters of Fact column and was previously an editor at Consumer Reports focusing on drugs.

Conflicts of interest can go beyond money.

Sources can also have conflicts of interest that are not tied to a particular study or project. They might hold a patent for an invention related to their research, receive money for consulting with a company or brand, or even hold investments in something related to the content of your story. Direct payment in exchange for a company’s success warrants particular attention. “At that point it would be really hard to be neutral about results,” says Carr. “At that point you’re being financially enriched.”

Conflicts of interest can go beyond money as well. “A lot of people don’t think about personal conflicts of interest,” notes Haelle. That could mean a source’s relationship with someone whose work is closely related to the story or who stands to personally benefit from the research discussed in the piece. Tamar Haspel, who writes a column for the Washington Post on food policy, sometimes asks sources for diet-related pieces if they follow a particular regimen to manage their own weight. In a recent piece about ketogenic diets and weight loss, she noted a source’s personal use of the low-carb diet for weight management, along with the fact that he wrote a book making the case for such diets. Since the piece is about whether a new study on keto was any good, Haspel felt his use of the diet was relevant. While it is far from necessary to ask every source about how their professional expertise relates to their personal life, in some cases it can help flesh out where they are coming from. “I think our views of the world, and the way we make sense of science, are inevitably colored by our own experience,” she says.

 

How to Identify a Conflict of Interest

In any study, researchers should disclose conflicts of interest in a section at the end of their paper, along with their sources of funding. “That’s just a standard part of any scientific paper that I’ve seen in any field. If people fail to reveal that, they may later get in big trouble,” says Kevin Krajick, a news editor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York. Of course, sometimes financial ties can slip through a journal’s particular standards for disclosure. But a careful look at the paper’s disclosures is a useful first step for sussing out conflicts of interest. When working on a recent piece for Undark (which I reprinted in Slate’s health section) about whether libido-boosting drugs for women are effective, Carr found a study on one such drug in which “every single one of the people” conducting the trial “had ties to the drug company that is distributing the drug,” she says. “So that’s obvious.”

You can also ask your sources if they have any conflicts of interest that might be relevant to your conversation. “In my experience, most people are very forthcoming about it,” says Haelle. “Most people are not trying to be mysterious or anything,” agrees Christina Colizza, the research editor at The New York TimesWirecutter (where I used to work, too).

When talking with sources about financial or other ties, talking in terms of “disclosures” sounds less accusatory than talking about “conflict,” notes Tara Haelle.

Colizza suggests saying something like: “To check whether we need to include any disclosures or clarifications in the article, could you let me know if you have any current or past financial ties to any of the products and companies we’ve talked about? For example, patents, funding, or consultancy work?” (She spells this language out in a piece on how Wirecutter vets sources.)

When talking with sources about financial or other ties, talking in terms of “disclosures” sounds less accusatory than talking about “conflict,” notes Haelle. She also explains that it’s up to her as the journalist to decide whether a disclosure counts as a conflict within the scope of her story. And asking about specific types of disclosures both helps jog someone’s memory and prevents confusion over what kinds of relationships you are asking them to disclose.

When to ask is itself a little bit of an art form. Colizza says asking by email when setting up an interview can save time and effort if a potential source turns out to have a major conflict. Carr typically prefers waiting until the end of the interview so that she’s already gotten all the information she needs before potentially ruffling the source’s feathers, “Unless the COI is the whole point of the interview or story,” she added via email. “Then I am more apt to talk about that issue upfront.” Haelle also asks at the end of interviews—except when she’s writing a fast-turnaround piece for one particular client, for which she rifles through a standard list of questions at the top of each interview to make sure she doesn’t have to chase down a source again before filing. If you’re nervous, Haelle suggests this trick: Thank the source for the helpful conversation—and then say that your editor wants you to ask if they have anything to disclose. “Anything you have to do that’s uncomfortable, just blame it on your editor,” says Haelle.

If your story involves healthcare, drugs, or another field where industry actors regularly pay experts for their work, there are a few databases you can check, too. Open Payments, a database maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, lists payments that go to physicians from drug companies. ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs and Dollars for Profs track industry funding going to experts (though the databases haven’t been updated since 2019, they may still be useful). With any source, you might do some “Googling around,” says Colizza—maybe even checking out their social media feeds—just to see if any ties to companies pop up that are worth asking the source about.

 

So, Can I Include This Source?

Whether to include a source ultimately comes down to whether they contribute something important to a reader’s understanding of the story. This will vary greatly from source to source and story to story. “I’m really reluctant to generalize in any way,” says Haspel, who is transparent about her own potential conflicts, keeping on her website a running list of organizations that have given her travel money for speaking engagements, as well as her personal guidelines for accepting this money, so anyone can evaluate these ties themselves.

“Each source presents its own set of challenges and quirks,” says Colizza. Sometimes, a source or their work is too central to the reader’s understanding of an issue to exclude. For example, a Wirecutter guide to sex toy hygiene included a study describing how human papillomavirus can linger on such devices—even though the work was funded by a company that sells sex toys—because it suggests the importance of disinfecting the devices in certain circumstances. Other times, a source’s conflict of interest could be the very reason you’re inclined to interview them in the first place. How much additional research to do to put a source’s remarks in context—and whether to ultimately include them at all—may come down to a series of conversations with your editor.

Some common considerations about whether to include a source will likely arise as you report the story. First is simply how solid the source’s work is in other respects. Colizza lists a few key red flags for studies: “if it’s published in a predatory journal, the sample size is too small, it’s not peer-reviewed.” A small, mildly interesting study funded by an industry player might not be worth including in your story, while an industry-sponsored study that yields a robust data set might say something important, even if it comes with caveats. And peer review, while imperfect, can help filter out overly biased research. (Be very wary of any data published solely on an advocacy website, such as a 2017 report released by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging that led The New York Times to publish a questionable piece about chemicals in boxed mac and cheese). “In general, what you’re seeing in a good solid journal is probably pretty decent data,” says Carr. “The question is, how do you interpret that data?” Here, good reporting is essential—getting comment from outside experts who were not involved in the work and do not have overlapping conflicts of interest. “Don’t ever rely on one person, or one group of people,” says Carr.

That includes seeking out people who might be skeptical of the research or technology you’re writing about, says Jori Lewis, a reporter based in Senegal who covers agriculture and the environment. She suggests a couple questions to ask yourself when you’re writing about something that is purported to solve a problem, as she did for a story about a supposedly climate-friendly coal: “Who are the people who disagree with this approach? Who are the people who agree with this approach but think it’s too fussy”—that is, great on paper and based in solid science, but impractical to pull off in the real world?

Don’t be afraid to bring up the conflict of interest with other sources. Other experts tuned in to the inner workings of a particular field can provide a useful gauge about whether the COI is a relevant issue.

If you’re writing about a piece of technology or an environmental solution, you might consider looking outside the world of researchers, to members of the community where the technology will be implemented, says Lewis. And don’t be afraid to bring up the conflict of interest with other sources. Other experts tuned in to the inner workings of a particular field can provide a useful gauge about whether the COI is a relevant issue.

On occasion, you might also use a source with a glaring conflict of interest—like someone who has received paychecks from a company—simply because it is impossible to find an expert in a particular field with no financial ties. Industry-funded studies are particularly common for some categories of drugs—sleep drugs, for example. This can also be true for some kinds of consumer goods. “Very often, the people who are most knowledgeable have either consulted or worked at a manufacturer,” says Colizza. In such cases, including multiple sources, with ties to different companies and industry groups, can help avoid making the story biased toward a particular manufacturer.

You’ll also need to clearly spell out what the conflicts of interest are, on the first mention of the source. There’s no need to get too fancy with these disclosures. Sometimes a conflict will be apparent in a source’s professional title. If the conflict of interest involves funding or a personal tie, you can put it in a parenthetical or an aside. In her piece on libido drugs, Carr included the researchers’ corporate ties in a list of problems with the study, set off between a pair of em dashes. Or you might be able to work a relevant connection into the story’s narrative as you would share any other interesting fact about a source’s life.

Different types of publications will have different tolerances for including sources with conflicts of interest. (Though you want to be wary of putting your byline in a publication that doesn’t bother to disclose those conflicts of interest.) An industry-funded study might warrant coverage in a trade publication intended to alert experts about new research in a given field, but not in a newspaper under a headline on how to change your eating habits.

Having conflicts of interest, after all, is just part of a story happening in the real world. If your story scrutinizes the actions of someone with a conflict of interest, you may need to reach out to them for comment. But you may also find yourself calling people with tight industry ties just to hear their perspective—knowing that what you’re getting might be a bit sanitized or influenced by the company they work for. “There’s nothing forbidden about talking to people who might have conflicts of interest,” says Lewis, adding that you are not obligated to include every source or everything they say. For this, she surveys actors with all kinds of interests, from researchers whose careers stand to benefit from their piece of technology taking off, to farmers whose goal is to make money on crops. Good reporting can be about putting people with varying interests in the conversation with each other, explains Lewis. As long as you make those varying interests clear to readers, she says, “I think it’s fair to talk to everyone.”

 

Shannon PalusEarl Wilson

Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a senior editor at Slate covering health and science. Her essay on a drug for stage fright earned a notable mention in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2020.

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