Campus Review: Conflicts of interest are not transparent, Australian study finds

By Susan Woodward for Campus Review

May 9, 2012

Australian universities are a long way from fully disclosing the connections between their researchers and vested interests, a study has found.

The study shows that although most universities generally require staff to declare potential conflicts of interest, at least 15 institutions lack specific conflict-of-interest policies and just four demand annual declarations. Only eight universities maintain a central conflict-of-interest register for all staff.

“It’s a failure of process,” the study’s lead researcher, Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, told Campus Review. His study further finds that no Australian university requires staff to disclose competing interests when making public comment or on their website profiles. Worse, any related information universities collected was rarely accessible by the public and media, he said.

“With the exception of two universities that said that they would make the information available upon request – I think one said to ‘relevant parties’ – the rest basically said that they wouldn’t make it publicly available. It was all mired in this issue of confidentiality,” said Chapman, who became interested in how universities handled conflicts of interest after 10 years editing a British Medical Journal title, where full disclosure was the norm.

Concerns about breaching staff privacy seem to drive university secrecy, the study concludes. “It might be argued that staff have rights to keep such information private. But do they have such rights and, if so, do these rights override the right of the public to know about competing interests relating to research?” writes the study team.

The study, Policies and Practices on Competing Interests of Academic Staff in Australian Universities, reveals findings from a 14-point survey sent to the vice-chancellors of all 39 Australian universities. Just 26 universities participated in full, leading Chapman to identify a “really horrendous refusal to supply information” for the study.

He said that the lack of transparency uncovered in his research fed negative perceptions held by the public, which expected universities to be independent voices of fact and quality information.

“I’m not saying for a moment that scientists and researchers should not have relationships with commercial firms. I can think of many examples where that’s a wholly pro-social thing to be doing…” Chapman said. “[But] there ought to be mechanisms by which members of the public and journalists can easily, instantly, obtain information about whether a particular academic or researcher has vested interests.”

Peter Smith, dean of medicine at the University of New South Wales, agreed that universities needed to be more transparent about their research ties, especially those to commercial enterprises. “There’s a view that it doesn’t matter – that OK, I’m doing a consultancy, but that doesn’t affect the way I think about a company’s products,” Smith said. “But we all know that’s not true. Clearly, there have been studies done on this, and it does cloud one’s judgement. The only way to get around that is through public disclosure and then let others be the judge.”

He said that Australian universities were complacent and out of step with their counterparts in the US, which had a mature culture of disclosure. “It’s a bit of a sleeping issue in this country,” Smith said.

The study reveals that the higher education sector has a very haphazard approach to conflicts of interest. Consequently, the researchers call on Universities Australia and the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education to develop standards for declaring, managing and policing such conflicts.

However, a spokesman for Universities Australia said the matter was one for its individual members to grapple with. When it came to medical research, he said, the peak body was working with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

“It is also important that the NHMRC make clear to researchers that they understand that conflicts of interest are not always negative and/or unethical,” Universities Australia wrote to the NHMRC last year when the medical research council began to revise it conflict-of-interest policies.

The four universities that require staff to make annual conflict-of-interest declarations are Charles Sturt University, Murdoch University, the University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia. Deakin University and New South Wales expect annual declarations by senior staff only. Australian National University stated that it required biennial declarations by all staff, although the researchers could not find this requirement in the university’s policies. About half the universities noted that staff should declare conflicts of interest to publishers and funding bodies.

In other results, the study found that 14 of the participating universities had some kind of conflict-of-interest register of staff declarations. Only two institutions, Curtin University and the University of Queensland, reported that they audited staff compliance.

Three institutions declined to participate in Chapman’s study: Flinders University, the University of Newcastle and the University of South Australia. For reasons unknown, nine others did not respond at all: CQUniversity, Griffith University, James Cook University, Southern Cross University, Swinburne University of Technology, the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), the University of Ballarat, the University of Tasmania and the University of Wollongong.

Chapman’s research was published in The Medical Journal of Australia in April.

The full study, which also involved researchers Bronwen Morrell, Rowena Forsyth, Ian Kerridge and Cameron Stewart, is available here.

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