February’s Edtiorial in Nature Medicine (14, 106; 2008) addresses the question of what we mean by ‘perceived’ conflicts of interest. The reader wrote: “This term crops up frequently in the editorials of Nature journals, and I would be extremely grateful if […] you would like to explain the difference between a perceived and an actual conflict of interest.”
The policy in full is described on our Author and Reviewers’ website, but to summarize, perceived competing financial interests [CFIs] are instances in which no competing interest (or conflict) exists, but the potential for financial gain as a result of what is published could give readers the impression of a conflict.
An example given in the Editorial is the publication of sponsored content. “Producing, say, a supplement to Nature Medicine requires financial resources that may not be part of our budget. If we want to publish this content for the benefit of our readers, we must find the money elsewhere. A sponsor may be interested in the topic of the supplement and agree to underwrite the costs. To the casual reader, this may look like a CFI—either the sponsor directly paid for the content, or the journal published on this topic to get money from the sponsor. There is, however, no conflict, because our sponsors never have a say on the editorial content of anything we publish. In fact, all of the editorial content for supplements is often already commissioned before we approach potential sponsors.” For Nature journals, all such content contains a clear statement by the editors, in order to be maximally clear.
We welcome readers’ views about perceived and acutal interests, either in respect of sponsored content or other aspects of the publication process.