Conflicts of interest (COI) management is serious business in biomedical research. One tool aims to simplify and harmonize the process, says Nature technology editor Jeffrey Perkel.
Every time a researcher submits an article or grant application, or fulfils their institution’s annual disclosure requirement, they must submit a new financial interests statement. The problem is, each entity may request slightly different information, or define conflicts slightly differently. Some, for instance, may only care about financial interests from the previous 12 months; others may have a wider window. For researchers that publish or give presentations frequently, the paperwork can quickly add up — as can the likelihood of embarrassing (or worse) oversights, a topic explored in this Nature Careers feature.
As the biomedical research community embraces transparency, more and more disclosure forms are making their way online, explains Heather Pierce, senior director of science policy and regulatory council at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, DC. That means it’s easier than ever to look over researchers’ shoulders, checking their disclosures against one another, and against public resources such as OpenPaymentsData.CMS.gov, a database that records payments from drug manufacturers and medical device developers to physicians and hospitals. “The potential implications and negative consequences of inconsistent disclosure forms, both on the individual themselves and on the institution with which they’re affiliated, can be quite significant.”
Enter Convey. Built by AAMC and launched in November 2016, Convey is a financial interests database and automated disclosure generation system — one that aims to simplify and harmonize the disclosure process.
Researchers maintain a single repository of their own financial interests, and can mine that to create their disclosure statements, says Pierce. Instead of creating each new disclosure from scratch, interests need to be entered only once, reducing workload and improving accuracy. And as they move from institution to institution, researchers maintain control of their database, meaning they need not recreate it with each new job.
Institutional clients, including both research facilities and journals, can use Convey to collect the data they need, building custom rules so that, for instance, researchers submitting manuscripts could pull only those conflicts that match the journal’s specifications. Institutions can also request custom information, such as data on familial relationships or service on committees. “Any information that institutions are collecting currently on their disclosure forms, can also be collected through Convey,” Pierce says.
As described by AAMCNews, Convey is free for researchers; institutions subscribe to the service “for an annual fee based on the volume of disclosures it receives.”
No institutions or journals have yet fully implemented the system, Pierce says, though a number are planning to do so. But that does present something of a catch-22 for potential users, as the system does not allow researchers to export generic disclosure statements for sites or journals that do not use the system already, Pierce says. As a result, even if users and their host institutions are using Convey, they still may have to create specific disclosures when submitting manuscripts to a journal that doesn’t support it.
For that reason, a researcher’s best bet may be the old standby — careful documentation, says Julia Campbell, Director of the conflict of interest office at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a Steering Committee member for the AAMC Forum on Conflict of Interest in Academe.
“When they have external relationships or external activities, whether it’s speaking or consulting, they track the company, they track the dates that they engaged in the activities, they track the amounts,” Campbell says. “And then they have it for reference whenever the specific disclosure requirements come up.”
Jeffrey Perkel is Nature’s Technology Editor.