Conflict of interest?
Are we transparent enough about potential conflicts of interest (COIs) in psychology? This question was posed by science journalist Tom Chivers in a Nature article in which he asked whether high-profile psychologists who are paid to give talks by businesses, or work in consultancy roles on the basis of their research, should be declared as COIs in journal articles or elsewhere.
Chivers outlined the work of Jean Twenge whose research has looked into ‘Generation Z’ (those born between the mid-1990s and early-2000s), and potential links between screen time and mood, loneliness and narcissism. Twenge gives paid talks and workshops to corporations and other groups, including not-for-profits, and has carried out consultancy work… but had not declared this work as a COI on journal articles in the past.
Others, including business psychologist Adam Grant, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance author Angela Duckworth and growth mindset researcher Carol Dweck, are also named for their paid speeches and consultancy work – usually not mentioned in conflicts of interest sections. However, since the publication of Chivers’ article Dweck, Duckworth and David Yaeger published a new study into growth mindset which did declare that the authors had disseminated research to wider audiences and had complied with their institutional financial disclosure guidelines.
The article surprised some psychologists; as Chivers wrote, this kind of approach is relatively standard within psychology. But should it be? Guidelines from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, used by many academic publications, suggest these personal fees should be declared as a potential COI. Given both the five-and six-figure sums which some academic psychologists can earn for such talks, and recent moves in the discipline towards greater transparency, it could be time for a culture change.
A later letter in Nature suggested that potential conflicts of interest may also exist on the boards of psychological societies in giving awards and prizes. Andrea Stoevenbelt and colleagues examined 58 psychology society websites to assess whether any award winners had close ties to those on committees awarding prizes.
Almost three quarters of the societies did not point out any potential conflicts of interest in its awarding committees; 45 per cent did not publish any conflict of interest regulations. Among those websites which did have regulations, only 28 per cent mentioned avoiding potential conflicts in relation to choosing awardees. The authors suggested societies address this: ‘We urge psychology societies to avoid conveying the impression of hidden nepotism by openly publishing their policies on personal COIs.’
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