Liz Wager: Would you review a paper by your ex-husband?

Liz WagerPerhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the revelation (from recently released official papers) that the UK Government wanted to suppress findings about the dangers of smoking because it was worried about the possible effect on tax revenues. It’s a great example of the fact that absolutely everybody has some sort of interest in research findings.

Journal conflict of interest policies tend to focus on obvious financial links with drug companies but other interests are often just as important, yet trickier to disentangle.

When I run publication courses I like asking whether somebody should review a paper by her ex-husband. It must happen, but I’ve never seen this sort of disclosure.

I also wonder about ex-students whose former supervisors may either be charmed by their success or gleeful to see them stumble, in either case muttering ‘I taught him all he knew …’.

As a reader, I’d like to see more disclosures of relevant non-commercial interests. Maybe somebody could adapt Facebook so that journal editors could tell, at a glance, who potential authors and reviewers have ever worked for (or with) and who their friends and enemies were.

I know that sounds ridiculous and way too intrusive but, until then, it’s a case of reader beware – everybody’s got competing interests.

Have your say on the blog.

About Liz Wager

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works
for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and academic institutions. She is also the Secretary of COPE (the Committee On
Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.

Read Liz’s previous blogs

Training and the placebo effect

Researchers behaving badly

  • Andrew Herxheimer

    It’s an important point, Liz, and I agree. But you seem to be thinking of relationships that would make the reader think unfavourably about the author. If there is a positive relationship between a referee and an author, eg if they have enjoyed working together, or trust and respect each other, the referee may not have looked for or noticed problems that someone ‘neutral’ might have spotted. The difficulties are where to draw the line, and then what to do. Can we imagine Mark Anthony refereeing a paper by Brutus?

  • In my opinion, there is no problem at all, at the condition that the referee is a honest scientist. If such as referee, reading a paper, finds it whorthy, he certainly will approve it in the interest of humankind. Of course!

  • Liz Wager

    Absolutely — conflicts don’t have to be negative (but it’s funny that the word prejudice seems to have got one-sided). That’s what I meant about ex-supervisors who might view their ex-students work with a rosy-tinted glow …. and of course I didn’t mean to exclude the happily married! But all these relationships are far harder to declare than financial ones.