You're supposed to disclose conflicts of interest if you're the author of a scientific paper. For the most part, everyone does, but it's those times that the system breaks down that cause all the trouble. Does this author actually earn a side income from Company X? Is that author actually about to start a new company based on the discovery that's being reported so breathlessly? And does this other author have a big stock position in company Y, whose price will be affected by this new paper? Journal editors want to know about these things, as do readers.
But how far do we go with this idea? An editorial in BioCentury (free PDF version) takes up arms against a new rule for non-financial disclosures from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. It requires authors to "report any personal, professional, political, institutional, religious, or other associations that a reasonable reader would want to know about in relation to the submitted work". And it's the inclusion of the words "personal", "political", and "religious" that could cause trouble.
Or maybe it's the inclusion of the word "reasonable". That's a common legal-argument adjective, but on the whole, people are not reasonable when it comes to their political or religious beliefs. (You may have noticed that there's been a debate for several centuries now about whether religious belief has anything to do with reason at all, but I think we'll try to stay out of that one). A dedicated atheist may consider it quite reasonable to want, say, any biological publication featuring Francis Collins of NIH to always feature a statement that Collins is a born-again Christian with a strong interest in reconciling his beliefs with scientific practice. An evangelical Christian reader, on the other hand, may want to have the biology papers flagged for the authors who do not see the hand of a Creator in their field of study. Which of these is "reasonable", if either?
The situation doesn't get any easier when you move towards politics. Do we really want to start listing party affiliations or the like? I realize that the journal editors have no intention of doing any such thing, but no one ever intends for the worms to get so far out of the can, either. When a really contentious issue comes up (such as global warming), plenty of reasonable readers (or perhaps I mean readers who are otherwise reasonable!) would want to see the complete political disclosure done on the authors of every paper, the better to sniff out Error, Self-Interest, and Collusion from either side of the debate.
How are we going to draw these particular lines, and how are we going to draw them in any kind of consistent fashion? Consistency is going to be very hard to achieve. The BioCentury piece points out a recent major disclosure glitch by the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine, and if we go into the full empty-out-your-pockets mode, I worry that the arguments may never cease.
And I've even made it to the last paragraph without mentioning the libertarian none-of-your-business objections to the whole idea. Your thoughts?