Tip number 5: Be aware of conflicts of interest 
Scientific research is the most reliable source of knowledge, but research can also be affected by conflicts of interest. Check where the money comes from.
Be aware of conflict of interests

Be aware that scientists and universities may also exaggerate the validity or significance of a conclusion. (Illustration: Thøger Junker)

Be aware that scientists and universities may also exaggerate the validity or significance of a conclusion. (Illustration: Thøger Junker)

Key points

  • Scientists and universities may also have conflicts of interest.

  • Reports commissioned by organisations, companies or authorities often lack objectivity in the research.

  • Press releases from universities are intended to sell a story and should be treated critically.

Research is generally the most credible source of knowledge, and scientists have far greater credibility than many other experts chosen as media sources. 

But scientists and universities may also have biases that favour a particular result or may exaggerate the validity or significance of a conclusion. 

Pay particular attention if the research has been commissioned by interest groups, companies or authorities who may have played a role in the outcome. 

Download the guide

 

This article is part of the guide 11 tips for journalists: How to avoid blunders when reporting on science. The guide is accessible in three formats: 

Online articles regarding each of the 11 tips.

The full guide of 11 tips as a PDF-file.

The 11 tips as a checklist, a one-pager.

An example

In 1999, the American biologist Tyrone Hayes discovered that the herbicide atrazine can cause malformations in frogs. 

Hayes was on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, but his research was supported by USD 100,000 in funding from Syngenta, which manufactured atrazine. 

A condition of the funding agreement specified that by sponsoring Hayes’ research, Syngenta owned his test results, which he was not permitted to publish. 

Hayes terminated the collaboration, sought alternate sources of funding to continue his research, and finally published his study in 2002. 

This illustrates why it is necessary to be particularly critical of scientific research commissioned by a stakeholder. 

This type of report potentially aims to reach a specific conclusion. However, research published in scientific journals may also be biased by conflicts of interest.

The financing or funding of a study or other conflict of interest is stated at the end of the scientific article in the section titled ‘Conflict of interests’, ‘Competing interests’, ‘Role of the funding source’ or similar wording. 

It has to state any potential conflict, for instance, if the scientists behind the article work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from the article.

Paid research can be reliable

It is far from a given that research is unreliable just because it is paid for by a foundation or a company. Most foundations provide grants without interfering in the research process. 

But of course, the financing or funding can matter. For example, several studies have shown that studies on medication and treatment sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry conclude with more positive results than independent studies. 

You should also be aware that even if a study has been conduc­ted correctly, it does not prevent the university’s press department or the scientist from exaggerating the conclusion or perspectives of the new research. 

Universities, research institutions and scientists all compete fiercely for grants and employment, and good media coverage helps.

Read more tips by clicking the blinking icons at the left in the graphic below.

About the Science Journalism Guide

This guide is for journalists and journalism students who are working on science and research news.

It provides 11 specific tips on how to avoid common pitfalls when covering science material.

The guide is written by journalists at the leading Danish popular science site Videnskab.dk.

It summarizes our many years of experience and the best solutions for communicating research and science critically and nuanced and with credibility.

Help us learn

The guide is based on our own experiences as journalists at Videnskab.dk, and we have received feedback and input from several talented scientists, communicators and journalism students.

It is important to emphasize that the guide sets out only general guidelines and rules of thumb.

No two stories are alike, and you will probably come across science stories where the guide is lacking or where it doesn’t make sense to follow all the tips. In other words, the 11 tips in the booklet are not set in stone.

If you have ideas or suggestions for how our guide — or our journalism at Videnskab.dk — can be improved, we would always like to hear from you. If you have questions, or if you are interested in a presentation on science journalism from Videnskab.dk, you are also welcome to contact us. You can write to us at redaktion@videnskab.dk.

The guide has been compiled by

Lise Brix, Ditte Svane-Knudsen, Anne Ringgaard, Thomas Hoffmann, Frederik Guy Hoff Sonne og Marie Barse.

Editing and layout: Jonas Salomonsen og Jon Mathorne.

Illustrations: Thøger Junker.

Translation: Stephanie Lammers-Clark. Proofread by Randy B. Hecht.

©Copyright and publisher: Videnskab.dk.

Thanks for help, input and feedback

Videnskab.dk has recieved economic support for our work with developing and sharing knowledge about science journalism from Den Fynske Bladfond, a foundation that supports free press in Denmark.

The following has provided valuable input and feedback:

Claus Emmeche (Associate Professor), Eske Willerslev (Professor), Felix Riede (Professor, AU), Gunver Lystbæk Vestergård (PhD in science journalism), Jesper Lesager Christensen (Journalism Student), Karin Frei (Professor), Kresten Roland Johansen (Lecturer, science journalism), Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen (Associate Professor,), Lasse Laustsen (Associate Professor), Mads Faurschou Knudsen (Associate Professor), Maja Horst (Professor), Mikkel Gerken (Professor), Oluf Danielsen (External Lecturer), Peter Hyldgård (Chairman, Danish Science Journalists), Simon Taarnskov Aabech (Journalism Student), Søren Kjørup (Philosopher, Emeritus), Andreas Søndergaard Petersen (Journalist, TjekDet) as well as journalism students at Roskilde University and Danish School of Media and Journalism.

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