We all have our personal go-to when it comes to articulating uncertainty. You might be a, “Err on the side of caution …,” or a “When in doubt …” Regardless, of your default, the premise holds especially true when it comes to dietary supplements, marketing claims, and the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest.
To enhance public trust in the science behind dietary supplement product development and marketing claims support, it is important to evaluate all aspects of the process of substantiation. Publication of science in a peer-reviewed journal is a critical aspect of both the trust and the substantiation. As part of this evaluation, the issue of conflict of interest is perhaps one of the key issues involved in assuring trust and transparency, especially considering that oftentimes the funders and sponsors of the research being conducted may appear to gain from the information being communicated, i.e. a conflict of interest may be perceived. This is an ongoing and ever-increasing debate in the nutrition and supplement industries, perhaps brought about by a decrease in government and non-profit funding and an increase in for-profit industry funding of research. Nonetheless, addressing it with integrity and transparency goes a long way to promoting public trust in industries.
According to the American Medical Association Manual of Style, a conflict of interest is when a researcher or writer’s ability to remain objective could be, or perceived to be compromised by financial interests, career advancement, or a certain outcome. Many organizations such as the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), The International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP), and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) develop policies to manage conflicts of interest. These policies guide the development of Good Publication Practices (GPP) that most reputable scientific journals adhere to. They typically provide ethical guidelines for the entire research and publication process including procedures for disclosing conflicts, guidelines for determining when a conflict prevents an individual from participating in a decision-making process, and protocols for managing conflicts when they do arise.
According to the ICMJE, perceptions of conflict of interest are just as important as actual conflicts of interest. The ICMJE emphasizes that the presence of financial or career compensation or a perceived conflict does not always mean there is an ethical concern, however, it is important to be as transparent as possible so that readers can make their own decisions. Therefore, complete transparency via disclosures is key. The challenge becomes that conflicts are not always clearly defined. Therefore, the first step in managing conflicts of interest is to identify them. This process involves understanding where potential conflicts might arise and being vigilant about recognizing them. The ICMJE and other organizations that guide scientific writing principles offer a good place to start as to what may be considered a conflict of interest. For example, the ICMJE provides a disclosure form that authors declare relationships and activities “Sources of support for the work, including sponsor names along with explanations of the role of those sources if any in study design; collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; writing of the report; any restrictions regarding the submission of the report for publication; or a statement declaring that the supporting source had no such involvement or restrictions regarding publication; and whether the authors had access to the study data, with an explanation of the nature and extent of access, including whether access is on- going.” This is just a start regardless of what details are provided in the disclosure, transparency is the guiding principle.
By being open about potential conflicts, individuals and organizations can maintain trust and integrity. This transparency is essential not only for maintaining ethical standards, but also for protecting the reputation of the individual or organization involved as well as maintaining public trust.
Addressing conflicts of interest is more than just identifying them, they must be considered in every step of the research process. Following the mantra of avoidance, disclosure, and recusal is a sound approach. Avoidance involves steering clear of situations where a conflict of interest could arise. Disclosure means informing all relevant parties about the conflict. Recusal means withdrawing yourself from the decision-making process or action where a conflict may exist.
Furthermore, the overall reporting as well as conduct of research including the disclosures should follow ethical guidelines such as those put forth by the GPP 2022 guidelines for publishing company-sponsored biomedical research.
Conflicts of interest are not likely to always be clearly defined, but if everyone conducting or publishing science follows the ethical guidelines for publication and operates always with integrity and transparency in mind, it will go a long way to promoting trust in the science undertaken in nutrition and supplements to develop and substantiate innovative ingredients and products. Perhaps it can best be summed up by saying “when in doubt, disclose.”