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Conflict of Interest: What It Is, and Why It Matters

September 8, 2021

It should go without saying that conflicts of interest (COI) are a fraught issue, both in research situations and in workplaces of all kinds. Sure, a manager's relative might get hired over someone else, but that doesn't always mean something untoward has occurred behind the scenes. 

However, the mere possibility that this outside relationship has exerted an undue influence on proceedings — or that the opportunity has been opened up to influence them in the future — can undermine the goals of the organization, either through actual corrupt behavior or through damaging the trust of the organization both internally and externally.

But what exactly constitutes a conflict of interest, and how do they undermine the research process? Today, let’s take a look at the fundamental nature of COIs and the consequences of leaving them undisclosed. 

What Is Conflict of Interest?

A conflict of interest is any situation where a person or organization has outside obligations that prevent them from carrying out their duties in the most honest and effective way they can. To offer a research-focused example, imagine your institution was conducting a study on the effects of a sugary diet on the human body. One potential funding source for the study was a sugar cane lobby group. In this scenario, the sugar cane lobby would likely have a vested interest in the results of the study, as those results could help or hinder their organization's goals. If they were to fund the study, there would rightly be skepticism regarding the validity of the results.

Why Does It Matter?

Everyone brings their own interests and obligations when they join a new organization. This isn't an inherently bad thing, but it's important for employees and institutions themselves to be honest and forthright when potential conflicts present themselves. 

If your involvement with a third party compromises the integrity of your institution's research, and you neglect to divulge the conflict, this can cause a variety of problems:

  • Undermining or negating the results of the research
  • Releasing privileged information or data to third parties
  • Fostering internal distrust within your institution
  • Fostering external distrust of your institution and the standards of its research
  • Damaging your own credibility and employment prospects
  • Creating inaccurate data from faulty research, which can mislead the public, with potentially dangerous results
  • Incurring possible legal and financial penalties for you and your institution

Foreign Espionage Is a Larger Issue Today

Though the phrase conjures up something exotic and exciting, foreign espionage can be more commonplace than it may seem. And though it certainly can be related to more extreme matters, a great deal of espionage occurs gradually, and the larger picture comes together over time. The reverse can also happen if a foreign entity plants misinformation.

The staggering fact is that the United States government has investigated many research institutions for neglecting to disclose relationships with foreign entities. In these instances, the government investigates the possibility that funding and input from foreign entities exerted a problematic influence on the research itself. Did any of these research projects leak sensitive information to hostile third parties? Or did these third parties compromise the results of the study in a way that undermines scientific findings?

These problems are all the more reason to disclose connections and the conflicting interests they pose as soon as possible.

Legal and Criminal Penalties

In many jurisdictions throughout the U.S, there are laws in place regarding conflicts of interest. Breaking these laws can lead to very real penalties, including misdemeanor charges in places like Alabama and Colorado, and even up to six months of prison time in Wyoming. Don't let a misstep like this land you with a criminal record.

Types of Conflict of Interest


A financial conflict of interest includes providing monetary incentives to you or someone near you to prevent you from conducting research to the best of your abilities. The sugar lobby scenario from earlier is a good example. If you're receiving money from a sugar lobby, it's fair to suspect that the results of your sugar study, whether intentionally or subconsciously, might be compromised.

Direct payment or funding isn't the only way financial COIs occur, though. Perhaps you own stock in a company that may be affected by your findings. This could incentivize you to skew the results of your research in a way that benefits the company and drives up their share price, so you earn a profit. Even if you have the purest of intentions, it's essential to be aware of and recognize when these conflicts may arise, and disclose them as soon as possible.


COIs can also be non-financial in nature. One classic example is nepotism. We all have ties to friends, family, and colleagues. It pays to recognize when the obligation we feel toward those we love conflicts with the integrity of research, and disclose those obligations in the course of the research itself.

For instance, imagine your institution is researching the effects of regular video game consumption on human psychology. Meanwhile, you know your cousin is a developer for a large video game company. Even if you have no intention to let this fact sway your results one way or the other, the fact that this connection exists needs to be brought forward. If left undisclosed then discovered down the line, this conflict of interest can have serious implications for the results of the study, eroding trust in you and your institution, undermining your integrity, and even causing legal penalties.

If You're Not Sure, Ask 

The best way to determine if something needs to be disclosed is to err on the side of caution. It's better to bring up something that turns out to be inconsequential as it pertains to your research than to omit an important connection you have, resulting in potential scandal. If you're confused and don't know whether a particular group affiliation, financial arrangement, or relationship could be problematic for your research, bring it up with your supervisor and see if anything needs to be done about it.

Kuali Research Makes Dealing With COI Easier

Make the research administration process easier on yourself by using tools that help you remain compliant and conflict-free. Kuali Research allows you to easily uncover and disclose conflicts of interest, keeping your proposals compliant with institutional and governmental guidelines, while also preventing or addressing conflicts as you go.

Request more information about Kuali Research today.

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