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Oh, Just a Minor Conflict

While a study conducted by American Institute of Biological Sciences found low levels of conflict of interest among peer reviewers serving on a grant panel, most of those conflicts were unearthed by staff, rather than being reported by the researchers, the AIBS team reports in Science and Engineering Ethics.

The team led by Scott Glisson at AIBS performed a retrospective analysis of conflict of interest data from some 280 research applications. These applications, Glisson and his colleagues note, focused on molecular biology, genetics, computational biology, and related projects and were seeking between $300,000 and $900,000 in funding.

The 'conflicted-ness' the investigators uncovered was less than has been reported for regulatory review panels, they note. However, the peer reviewers themselves only reported slightly more than a third of the conflicts; staff uncovered the other two-thirds through a manual review of CVs and other documentation, the investigators say. This meant that, on average, 39 percent of reviewers had a conflict with at least one application before their panel.

Most of these conflicts, Glisson and his colleagues add, were minor and due to organizational affiliations, collaborations, and personal connections. They found no financial conflicts.

However, as these conflicts were mostly manually detected the researchers say that "it is clear that conflicts were under-reported by reviewers overall, indicating that financial conflicts may have in fact existed."

To better uncover conflicts of interest, the researchers suggest that reviewers should have to provide basic, standardized financial interest information as part of their CVs or biosketches.

"Peer review is so central to the way we do science, it is important that we study the process," first author Stephen Gallo, the AIBS Technical Operations Manager, says in a statement. "With good data, we can ensure the vibrancy of peer review and develop models and best practices that promote the integrity of peer review."

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