Comment on Slama R, Cyrys J, Herbarth O, Wichmann H-E, Heinrich J. saying: “The authors did not wish to reply, given Dr. Morfeld’s persistence in refusing to fill in the conflict of interest statement and in misleadingly quoting parts of the sentences of our publications”
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- Morfeld, P. Arch Toxicol (2009) 83: 645. doi:10.1007/s00204-009-0448-5
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On conflict of interests and biased presentations of epidemiological findings
Conflict of interest (CoI) has become an important matter in the medical sciences. It is often believed that CoI has mainly to do with the potential impact of corporations on science (as emphasized by Pearce 2008, 2009) and it is often thought to be related to money (as criticized by Acquavella 2006). A more realistic approach understood corporations as being heterogeneous with respect to possible CoIs; even units within a corporation and individuals at work in a corporation should not be considered to be homogeneous (Greenland 2008). Thus, it is far too simple to identify a CoI just by noting some kind of link of an individual to a corporation. Interestingly, the question is seldom raised whether CoI may occur if a researcher is politically active in the field (Claxton 2007) or whether researchers linked to a non-governmental organization (NGO) may suffer from a CoI because NGOs—like corporations—attempted to bias science in some circumstances (Phillips 2008). This calls for a clearer definition of CoI. Following an explication given in the review by Claxton (2007), CoI is a situation in which an individual or an organization has competing primary or secondary interests. The critical thing is the bias that may occur from such a CoI. This bias tends to inhibit impartial judgement and it may lead to unfair action or policies (Claxton 2007). Thus, stating a CoI implies that competing interests must be active and such competing interests may result in a biased design, performance, analysis, reporting or discussion of a study and its scientific findings. Obviously, there were publications produced by researchers who distorted the analyses of data and presentation of results deliberately and these papers survived the peer-review process (Ioannidis 2008). Such distortions should be understood as hints at CoIs. As an example, the biased presentation of results in Slama et al. (2007) may therefore be interpreted as an indicator that the authors suffered from a CoI (Morfeld 2009a, b; Slama 2009; Slama et al. 2009). I agree with Greenland (2008) that the links to corporations and organizations should be fully disclosed but such a link does not imply necessarily the existence of a conflict of interest. Finally, I hope that scientifically trained readers will follow Rothman and Cann (1997) and always try to judge the work and the wording rather than the authors.
Conflict of interest statement
The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.