As a reviewer, you are expected to uphold the integrity of the peer review process. Sound like an intimidating amount of responsibility? We’re here to help.
In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of identifying and declaring competing interests. This is one of the most important ways to promote ethical peer review.
Ethics for Peer Reviewers
What Is a Competing Interest?
What are competing interests, and why should you care about them?
Competing interests can be many things. Here’s the official definition that PLOS uses:
A competing interest is anything that interferes with, or could reasonably be perceived as interfering with, the full and objective presentation, peer review, editorial decision-making, or publication of research or non-research articles submitted to PLOS.
Competing interests can be financial or non-financial, professional, or personal. Competing interests can arise in relationship to an organization or another person.
Competing interests matter because they can introduce perceived or actual bias in the submission or peer review process. The appearance of bias during the evaluation can compromise a study down the line – even if the study is perfectly valid.
Confused about competing interests? You’re not alone. Below we’ll walk you through how to check for competing interests that could reasonably be perceived as interfering with your peer review of the manuscript.
Checking for competing interests: How, when, and where
When you are invited to review a manuscript, check for any competing interests that may exist between you and the authors.
Here are some questions to ask yourself: If you answer yes to any of these questions you should declare them as a competing interest to the journal before you accept the invitation to review.
Financial conflicts of interest:
Could you profit or be negatively impacted financially by the submitted research?
Personal conflicts of interest:
Do you have a personal relationship with the authors?
Are you and the authors rivals or competitors?
Professional conflicts of interest:
Have you recently worked at the same institution or organization as the authors?
Have you or are you currently collaborating with the authors?
Have you published with the authors during the last 5 years?
Do you or have you held grants with the authors?
If you agree to review a manuscript, check for competing interests again once you have access to all of the submission files.
Where in the submission should you look for competing interests? Here are some possible things to check:
- Author list: Do you know any of the authors?
- Funding information: Do you now, or have you recently held grants with any of the authors?
- Acknowledgments: Are you thanked in the acknowledgments?
Declaring competing interests
If one of these situations applies to you, or if you think you have a competing interest that’s not listed here, get in touch with the journal right away. Depending on the situation, the journal editors may ask you to review anyway, or decide to find a different reviewer.
If the journal editors decide to keep you as a reviewer on the manuscript, they will probably ask you to declare the competing interest in your reviewer comments. This will make your position transparent.
Again, remember that competing interests are not necessarily bad. It’s okay to have them. The important thing is that they are declared. Even if you are confident that your review is unbiased, declaring a potential competing interest ensures the editor understands the relationships in play, and can account for them when evaluating reviewer feedback to reach a decision.
Want to read about real-life scenarios involving competing interests for reviewers? These case studies from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) provide some interesting (and complicated) examples of tricky situations. We hope you don’t find yourself in a similar situation, but if you do, remember to get in touch with the journal for advice.
Competing interests case study #1 | Reviewer recommends rejection, then submits a manuscript to the same journal on the same topic.
Competing interests case study #2| Reviewer suggests rejecting a manuscript and turns out to be affiliated with a competing institution, which was not disclosed during the review process.
Competing interests case study #3 | Reviewer recommends rejection and turns out to have a patent on a method challenged by the submitted research, which was not disclosed during the review process.
Learn more about competing interests
PLOS Medicine editorial, Making sense of non-financial competing interests
PLOS Medicine editorial, How does PLoS Medicine Manage Competing Interests