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Conflict of interest: avoid risks

Where conflicts of interest arise, the interests of the University are at odds with private or other interests, which can harm the image of both the University and our staff. But how do such - possibly only apparent - conflicts of interest arise? The most important types of conflict are summarised below.

Conflicts of interest can arise in scientific contexts and also in supporting services. Generally these are situations where private interests or the interest of a company or institute are at odds with the interests of the University. But, even completely ethical conduct can all too easily give the impression of a conflict of interest, which can still have harmful consequences for you, a colleague or the University as a whole. We all need to be constantly alert to the risks involved.  

External funding and clients

Conflicts of interest often relate to cases of academic integrity.  This issue can play a role in the scientific world where research is carried out with or for external parties (companies or institutions), as in the field of drug development, for example. One of the cornerstones of science is the independence of the researcher. This can, however, conflict with the interests of a business or research partner. In such cases it may be tempting to present the research results such that they are favourable for the client, or to omit unfavourable findings. The University has therefore attached a set of guarantees to research financed by contract funding. These conditions are set out in the regulation on Working for Third parties.

Openness of research findings

Science thrives on openness, which is achieved by publishing   research findings and methodologies so that they are available for comment and criticism by fellow researchers from the same discipline. Making the underlying data public is a recent requirement, so that other colleagues can check the data or so that research can be repeated. Conducting research for an external party can compromise the openness of research findings because commercial clients, for example, may well want to withhold these findings, at least for a while. This is one of the reasons that Leiden University prefers to hold intellectual property rights on research findings itself. A company that wants to use the findings can then sign a licence with the University. A licence guarantees that the company can have exclusive use of the research results and that the results become open after one year. 

Dual functions

Another form of conflict of interest can occur if a scientist also holds another position in the same field, with a company or an institute, for example. Last year in a newspaper column a Leiden professor of Forensic Accountancy criticised colleagues - also professors of Accountancy - who work as accountants alongside their University jobs. The accountancy field has been under fire in recent years and these fellow professors are thought to have kept themselves outside the debate on integrity and quality in the world of accountancy because this could have an impact on their own commercial positions. It is not a question of whether this professor is right or not (the opinions are divided), but what is important is that he sees the need to raise the issue. The same conflict arises if a scientist is actively engaged in his own company, and this company commercialises the results obtained by his scientific group at the University. In this case it is not only the reliability of the research results that is called into question, but also the how and why of that research, giving rise to such questions as whether the research being done for the company or for the scientific world as a whole. This kind of set-up can also give fellow-workers at the University the impression that it is normal to work for the professor's company. Young researchers in particular find it difficult to resist this kind of pressure. 

Improper use of University resources or facilities

There may also be instances where University resources or facilities are used for personal gain. Obviously, nobody would think that taking money from a cash box is ever permissible. But, an undesirable conflict of interest can also occur if an individual is kind enough to measure samples for a third party using University equipment,for example, even if he or she does it out of the goodness of their heart. And it is also a conflict of interest if someone who has access to a University van uses it in the weekend to move house. 

Non-scientific dual positions

Dual positions can also occur among non-scientific staff. A person who works in the Real Estate department and who is involved in the acquisition and selling of property can better not have a subsidiary job as an estate agent. Even if the member of staff at the Real Estate department has nothing to with buying and selling of University premises, a conflict of interest can still appear to be possible, which is not advisable. The same applies if a member of staff passes an assignment to a friend or family member, even if that friend or family member is ideally suited for the job. 

Family and other close relations

There are people working at the University who are members of the same family or who are in some other way closely related. Sisters, brothers, father/daughter, married couples, friends - all these can occur in such a large organisation as Leiden University. But, it is self-evident that a person cannot be a member of an interview panel, for example, if an immediate family member or other close contact is among the applicants. 

Conflict of interest is a phenomen where appearances can be stronger than actual facts, and even if the suspicion is unfounded, it is still a damaging situation for the University.  It is always better to avoid taking the risk. 

Committee on Academic Integrity merges with LUMC

With effect from 1 January 2018 the Leiden University Committee on Academic Integrity and the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) Committee on Academic Integrity have been merged to form a single Committee. 

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