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Editor’s comment: Prof. Dan Farine: Disclosure of possible conflicts and other pitfalls waiting those who publish

In this interesting paper the major finding is that 68% of physicians submitting a paper to the Society of Gynecological Surgery (SGS) did not properly disclose their full relationship to industry. Interestingly, the way that the under-reporting was found was based on earlier disclosure of these physicians of such a relationship.

Publishing is a way to achieve recognition as an expert and academic promotion. Publications are the major way to disseminate new information and improve medical practice. Individuals may feel pressure to publish for these reasons. The editors and readers want to see the best information published and they want to be sure that biases are optimally eliminated or at least disclosed.

The industry needs to have a link with clinicians and researchers. These links may be in the form of research grant or compensation for lectures or being a part of a consulting board. This is crucial for the industry in order to develop new products and test the existing ones. This is also important for the profession as these links are likely to direct these companies to the most promising areas and having good researchers conducting relevant research. Some look at connection to industry as a negative behaviour as it may involve monetary compensation and may bias attitude and opinion. I would suggest that the readers refer to Nick Fisk publications on Pharma and Ob/Gyn to put our view in a positive perspectives as such relationship has many more advantages than disadvantages. However, there is a responsibility to disclose such relationship in submitted papers.

No disclosure of relationship to industry in the context of a submission of paper creates several problems. The readers and the editors cannot accept a poor disclosure of only about 1/3 of the papers as was outlined in this paper. This may lead a drive to have alternative methods of obtaining this information that are not based on voluntary disclosure. On a personal level it may be even worse. A non-disclosure could be interpreted in different ways: the author may have forgotten about the relationship (possible but quite unlikely), the author clicked on the no disclosure button automatically (possible), the author does not feel comfortable in admitting in this forum the relationship with industry (very likely in my opinion), the author has something to hide in either the data or its interpretation (unlikely in my opinion). There is a reasonable chance that there will be a disclosure by third party during the review of the paper or worse – after it had been published. In such a case the worse possible scenario will be suspected and the author may have hard time in clearing himself/herself. One’s integrity and honesty is not worth any single paper and therefore all authors should do anything they can not to be in that position. The right and safe thing to do is to err on the side of “over-disclosure” as this will work best for the system of self-reporting as well to avoid ethical issues with the individual papers and authors.

Authors should be aware of other issues that may put them in a similar horrible position. Such issues are plagiarism and self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism is the lesser offense as some may claim that it is equivalent to moving your own money from the left pocket to the right one. We have recently published and outlined the “do” and “not to do” in this area. The safest way for an author is a disclosure to the editors (and this way to the reviewers) about any perceived possibility of duplication. Doing this removes the concerns about deceit and allows a person detached from the issue to make the decisions. Plagiarism is a worse offence and therefore appropriately much less tolerated. Many papers are written now by several authors and a senior author may not even be aware that a junior one decided it was easier to copy content than writing it. Stating that one is unaware that this happened is a poor defence. The publishers generally use software to detect plagiarism. My suggestion to authors who have not written the whole paper is to use the same software and ensure that none of their co-authors puts them in this unacceptable position.

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Commentaries by Editor Prof. Jim Thornton