Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Reputation, Perception of Conflict of Interest and Potential for Bias in Research
By Marianne Evola

My high school dress code did not permit students to wear blue jeans to school. It was a rule that was resented by students and embraced by high school faculty and administration. As such, it was emphatically enforced with violators being immediately sent home and told to return properly dressed the next day. One day, the “best dressed” male student in my class decided, on a dare, to conduct an experiment. He predicted that his reputation of being well-dressed, would enable him to wear jeans all day and none of the teachers would even notice. So, the next morning, he casually arrived to school in high quality dark blue jeans with a very nice white sweater.  Most students were in on the dare and nobody spoke a word about it. At the end of the day, he boldly strolled out of the school as we all rolled our eyes and shook our heads because not one teacher had said a word, not even in the two classes where he was assigned a seat in the front row. He won the bet. But more interestingly, the next day no one interpreted Steve’s success as an invitation to violate the “No Blue Jeans” rule, not even Steve. We knew we would never be successful and Steve knew his well-dressed reputation would only provide limited protection.

Obviously, this example comes from a much more innocent time when a dress code violation was worthy of attention. Arguably, the above example may be inappropriate because it is a demonstration of how reputation enabled someone to break rules without being caught. Regardless, this simple example effectively demonstrates the importance of reputation on perception and also that at a very young age, people understand that relationship. Steve knew it and as evidenced by no one attempting to repeat his experiment, the rest of my high school class knew it as well. Reputation influences our perceptions.

The process of financial disclosure directly addresses the issues of reputation and perception. It is an effort by the federal government and universities to protect the reputation of independent research and scholarship. Even industry is widely utilizing financial disclosure as a means to protect their interests and reputation. Historically, the reputation of industrial research regarding human and environmental wellness has been poor, as compared to the reputation of institutions of higher learning. Prior to the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, academic research and scholarship was generally conducted independent of goals for personal profit. It was the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, rather than profit, that gave colleges/universities the reputation of being the “ivory tower” of scholarship. Whether that reputation was deserved or bestowed is a matter of debate. However, the passing of the Bayh-Dole Act finally enabled academic researchers and universities to profit from patents that result from federally funded research and finally they could profit from their sweat and ingenuity, as I discussed in a previous issue of Scholarly Messenger. Furthermore, as universities continue to grow in an atmosphere where state and federal financial support is decreasing, marketing the successes of faculty through patents and/or partnerships with industry will be critical to their survival. However, with these partnerships and the potential for profit also comes the potential for bias or more importantly, the perception of bias. An institution or individual’s reputation becomes vulnerable to question and/or attack when profit introduces the perception of bias. Then, once one’s reputation is questioned, the process could continue to spiral downward.

Texas Tech University, and all federally funded institutions, is now required to have a centralized process for financial disclosure to promote transparency and trust. Just as profit elicits questions on integrity/bias of research, transparency elicits trust. In a sense, profitability and integrity in research rely on one another like opposite teams in a game of tug-of-war. Both sides have to work hard on their agenda for the game to work. If your opponent lets go of the rope, your side will topple. Similarly, independent research is dependent on industriousness, because without money there is no research. However, without integrity/transparency, there is no trust in your product and your business will fail. These ideas are not new. Rather, only the formalized systems for monitoring transparency are new. Formalized systems of monitoring transparency are critical because the frequency of industry/university relationships is increasing while arguably public trust in research is decreasing. Transparency is a powerful tool for addressing the controversial relationships between academics and industry as well as the promoting public trust. Transparency diminishes the perception of and potential for bias.

For the last couple of years, in response to federal agendas, TTU, and more specifically the OVPR (Integrity) and the FCOI administrators have actively collected and reviewed financial disclosure information and as such, we have learned a lot about the importance of disclosure and transparency. In the spirit of transparency, I thought that I would present some general information/strategies that we have gained.

  1. We have learned that few faculty members are involved in relationships with private entities that would elicit a perception of bias. And even fewer are involved with entities and research that create an actual conflict of interest. Most management plans created through the collaborative efforts of the OVPR and industrious faculty address factors that could create perception of bias. A “perceivable conflict of interest” has the potential to cause damage to the reputation of an investigator, department or TTU if it is not disclosed or managed.
  2. Prior to the federal mandate to disclose significant financial relationships, many faculty had already instituted transparent practices and protocols to manage and protect their research and profitable entities from perception of bias. They proactively realized that it was critical to protect their research reputation from perception of bias. As such, they have sometimes provided efficient conflict of interest management procedures to our office.
  3. Most faculty members readily understand that financial disclosure creates transparency. However, even when the need and procedure is easily understood, it can be personally difficult to comply. Financial disclosure requires disclosure of personal information and as such, the process can be perceived of as invasive. As such, some faculty and staff are understandably resistant to the process. I understand their resistance to disclose personal information and am an advocate for personal privacy. However, I also see the need for trust and transparency in research, especially when we ask the public to fund our academic endeavors. We encourage faculty to contact us with any concerns regarding disclosure and privacy of disclosed information.
As stated above, we learn at a young age how peoples’ perceptions can blind them. Even before high school kids have reputations as good, bad, smart, athletic, nerds, etc. And once defined, it is difficult to break free of our reputation and labels. We need to work together to defend the reputation of our researchers and scholars, to maintain the objectivity of research free from real or perceived bias and to progress and grow through hard earned and necessary business endeavors and partnerships. Finally, we need to utilize transparency as critical tool for minimizing perception of bias.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.