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Case study: a potential conflict of interest

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

Emma and Marco are second-year PhD students working on independent research projects with the same supervisor, Dr Eriksson. Dr Eriksson is involved with a company a friend of his has set up, acting as an adviser and promoting its services and products.

One of the company’s products is relevant to both their projects, and Dr Eriksson is keen for Emma and Marco to incorporate it into their research work; he thinks the product has great potential and will be useful to them.

There will also, very likely, be the opportunity for Emma and Marco each to spend a 3-week internship with the company, which will give them experience of working in a commercial organisation and so be a valuable addition to their skill set and CVs.

Dr Eriksson tells Emma and Marco that when he spoke about the product at a recent academic conference there was great interest, and a number of researchers asked if they could visit him at the university to talk more about it and its potential applications. Emma and Marco haven’t so far encountered any serious issues in their research projects; they have generally been happy with their situation and feel they are progressing well towards completing their PhDs. Dr Eriksson has been a good and supportive supervisor, and they have always felt comfortable following his suggestions and guidance.

Emma, however, has some concerns at the current proposal, wondering if Dr Eriksson may be being swayed by the desire to support his friend and excitement at being able to test a new product in his research. Her greatest concern is that it might detrimentally affect the steady progress she’s been making.

Marco is much less concerned, and although he doesn’t want to jeopardise his project in any way, he’s keen to be part of this new venture. The possibility of an internship is particularly appealing, as he’s been thinking that he might want to move to the commercial sector after he’s completed his PhD.

Questions for discussion

  1. Do you think it is reasonable for Dr Eriksson to ask his two research students to introduce the new product into their projects?
  2. What are the potentially conflicting issues in this situation? Which are acceptable and can be addressed? Are there any that represent too great a conflicting interest?
  3. How should Emma and Marco handle this situation? What should they take into account and what questions should they ask?

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