The Nature publishing group recently changed its rules on author disclosure for things that might affect objectivity in the authorship of papers. The criteria include the usual ones regarding financial interests, employment, funding, and so on. There’s a new section on non-financial stuff, though:
Non-financial competing interests can take different forms, including personal or professional relations with organizations and individuals. We would encourage authors and referees to declare any unpaid roles or relationships that might have a bearing on the publication process. Examples of non-financial competing interests include (but are not limited to):
Unpaid membership in a government or non-governmental organization
Unpaid membership in an advocacy or lobbying organization
Unpaid advisory position in a commercial organization
Writing or consulting for an educational company
Acting as an expert witness
I see where they’re coming from on these, but this does wander off into a gray area. I think, in theory, that authors should indeed disclose advocacy or advisory positions that could be seen to affect their objectivity, but there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: what if a scientist comes to a viewpoint based on their research, and acts on those conclusions by joining an advocacy group? Has membership in such a group affected their objectivity, or is the wrong way around?
Note how this is worded, as well. “We would encourage”, but up at the top of the page, it says this:
In the interests of transparency and to help readers form their own judgements of potential bias, Nature Research journals’ require authors to declare any competing financial and/or non-financial interests in relation to the work described. The corresponding author is responsible for submitting a competing interests’ statement on behalf of all authors of the paper.
So that makes it sound as if the non-financial interests are also required, but when you get down to the language of that section, it’s not so clear. There’s an editorial (open access) at Biocentury that wonders about this even more:
Under these criteria, the author of a paper about climate science would need to disclose his leadership position in the Sierra Club. A physician publishing research on the safety of a new contraceptive might be expected to reveal that she had advised Planned Parenthood.
The broad criteria for disclosure in Nature’s policy could easily be interpreted to include religious beliefs; some journals explicitly demand that authors provide information about their religious convictions.
I’d be interested in knowing which journals those are; I’ve never encountered anything like that, I have to say. But although this might seem to be taking things a bit far, the sorts of requirements that Nature (and others) are adding could be abused in this way. The lines between political, religious, and other beliefs are (and have always been) blurry, and trying to unblur them can lead to real trouble. There were plenty of ugly examples during the 1950s and 1960s, for example (as the editorial points out) what Linus Pauling went through for his nuclear disarmament views.
Pauling was not a Communist nor a Soviet agent, but he got tarred with that brush. The whole ideological history of that era is a mess, of course. There were people like Pauling, but there were also people who were accused of being Soviet agents who really were, as things turned out, and you can still start fights over who belongs on which list with people of certain ages or political affiliations. I worry that expanding authorship disclosure in this direction could lead to more rounds of orthodoxy-sniffing and purity tests if we don’t watch out. Editorials are one thing – but a scientific paper’s results should stand up to scrutiny (and stand up to reproduction) on their own, regardless of the beliefs of its authors.