Conflict of Interest Statements Don’t Affect Peer Review 

By Nicholas Weiler

Most scientific and clinical research journals require authors to disclose potential conflicts of interest (COI) as a condition of submitting a manuscript for peer review. But a new study by researchers at UC San Francisco, Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard Business School reveals that peer reviewers do not take COI disclosures into account in their recommendations to journal editors, likely because of an absence of clear guidelines on how conflicts should impact their evaluations. 

Michael Callaham
Michael Callaham, MD, editor-in-chief of Annals of Emergency Medicine, whose peer review process was the subject of a study of the impact of conflict of interest statements for authors.

Designed as a randomized controlled trial, the research published Nov. 6, 2019, in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) evaluated peer reviews of nearly 1,500 papers submitted to the Annals of Emergency Medicine (AEM) over a four-year period. The study found that while the majority of reviewers indicated they had read and understood the importance of COI disclosures, the disclosures had no impact on their reviews or ultimate recommendations about whether a given study should be published.

“Even experienced peer reviewers usually cannot articulate a specific and effective approach to follow once COI is suspected or declared,” said Michael Callaham, AEM’s editor-in-chief, emeritus chair of emergency medicine at UCSF and a senior author of the paper. “As a result, most reviewers do not change their assessments due to this information. Clearly the guidelines for reporting COI are not achieving their goal and need to be further studied and improved.”

For more details, see CMU’s coverage of the study.