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Institutional Review Board (IRB)

Conflicts of Interest

When you’re doing research that involves human subjects, a conflict of interest can arise from the personal and/or financial relationship you have with the organization(s) involved in your study. 

Are you:

  • collecting data at your place of employment
  • going to be reimbursed by your employer for expenses incurred while you’re working on your project
  • surveying or interviewing friends and family
  • surveying or interviewing people who work for you
  • studying a problem that has impacted you or your family
  • studying a problem that conflicts with your personal beliefs

All of these situations are possible. Any of them could create a conflict of interest – that is, they could compromise the objectivity and integrity of your project and/or the safety of your participants. But none of them have to be a reason to discontinue your study. 

How do I manage a conflict of interest in my research project?

If you know (or even think) there’s a conflict of interest in your research project, the first thing to do is disclose it – state it as plainly as you can. Maybe you’ve identified something obvious, or maybe your conflict wouldn’t be known if you didn’t say anything. 

Where should you disclose a conflict of interest?

  • your irb application
  • your informed consent statement
  • your research proposal
  • your request for approval from a data collection site
  • your final report

When should you disclose a conflict of interest?

  • before you begin your project
  • as soon as you identify it (if you’ve already started your project)

Disclosing a conflict of interest provides reassurance that you’re conducting honest work and doing your best to minimize possible bias and keep participants safe – and, because of that, your results can be trusted. (North Texas) 

Who needs to be reassured? 

  • the people participating in your study
  • the people reading about your findings
  • potential grant funders
  • your employer
  • regulating bodies in your industry
  • the government

Once you’ve disclosed your conflict of interest, you need to manage it by working to minimize the risk of bias. The best way to minimize the risk of bias in a research project with a conflict of interest is to modify your study. That doesn’t mean you have to change your topic – but it could mean that you change the way you do your research. 

What can you do to minimize the risk of bias in a research project with a conflict of interest?

  • collect data at a different site
  • collect data from different participants
  • have someone else collect data for you
  • have someone supervise you as you collect data
  • have someone (without a conflict of interest) check your work

Remember, conflicts of interest in research projects are always possible. But, if you identify and manage them, they don’t have to end your research project.