Conflicts of Interests

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A conflict of interest is "a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust." A conflict of interest thus arises when a person has to play one set of interests against another. For example, a practicing physician is obligated to work in the best interests of his or her patients. Recommending a new drug in return for financial compensation would represent a conflict of interest. This is especially so when the new drug is not any more effective than existing drugs, or may cost more. The physician is in conflict by virtue of the potential to increase income at the expense of his or her patients.

Even the perception by others of a conflict of interest can render suspect the work conducted by a public health professional. For instance, if funding for research is provided by the tobacco industry, there is evidence to suggest that the researcher could be inclined to conduct research and provide results that would be supportive of the tobacco industry's interests. The findings from such research could be contrary to the findings from other research indicating strong associations between smoking cigarettes and the development of various cancers and heart disease. Perceptions of conflicting interests can thus be as harmful to the researcher as real conflicting interests. Many scientific journals now require that the sponsors of research be made known at the time that manuscripts containing research findings are submitted for peer review and also at the time the manuscript is published.

Colin L. Soskolne

(see also: Codes of Conduct and Ethics Guidelines )


Coughlin, S. S.; Soskolne, C. L.; and Goodman, K. W. (1997). Case Studies in Public Health Ethics. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.