Federal Government Public Reports Should Be Subject to Disclosure Requirements

The author says that government reports should have more extensive disclosure requirements.

Each year federal departments and agencies directly issue or support scores of reports often as part of grants or contracts. When timely and carefully written, these reports can drive policy changes, generate public discussion, and serve as invaluable resources for agencies and members of the public.

Yet there do not appear to exist any formal requirements for agencies and departments regarding identifying and acknowledging in these reports key authors or contributors or disclosing financial or other conflicts of interest that may exist among agency employees, contractors/grantees, technical expert panel members or others helping to author and develop these products. This contrasts sharply with requirements that apply when federal agency staff and others publish in peer-reviewed journals.

To foster trust and allow readers to thoroughly assess published works, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget should develop a best practices document or memo encouraging federal agencies to adopt requirements for authorship and conflict of interest disclosure in reports, policy briefs and other documents they directly publish or support through grants and contracts similar to those of peer-reviewed journals.

In submitting an article or even correspondence to most peer-reviewed journals, authors are required to complete forms developed by organizations such as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). These forms ask for authors, including government officials submitting to these journals, to share such information as funding received to complete the article, including through grants and contracts, royalties and interest, patents, leadership or other fiduciary relationships and positions, stocks and stock options and “[o]ther financial or non-financial interests.” As ICMJE explains, the idea is that: “Public trust in the scientific process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how transparently an author’s relationships and activities, directly or topically related to a work, are handled during the planning, implementation, writing, peer review, editing, and publication of scientific work.” 

Overlapping with conflict of interest requirements, ICMJE and others also have developed specific requirements defining who is or is not an author. This responds in part to the phenomenon of “ghostwriting” in which the listed authors do not necessarily write the articles.

Thus, many journals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), also expect that each of the authors listed to certify they have contributed such as developing the idea for the article, helping to fund the research, conducting data analysis or directly editing or writing the manuscript. Yet, as far as I have been able to ascertain, no analogous requirements apply to government reports either directly authored by agency officials or, more commonly, acquired or supported through grants or contracts.

The peer-review process, including for conflicts of interest, is not perfect. And that a conflict is declared does not necessarily mean that its real or perceived impact is mitigated. But even with its limitations, the process of declaring conflicts of interest and ensuring fair credit for authorship helps to maintain trust.

Currently, formal requirements for authorship and conflict of interest declaration in federal agency reports appear to be lacking.

Consider the hypothetical example of a report developed by a contractor. If a public report is published on a key science policy by a federal agency, that agency would not currently be required to disclose that it recently has or is providing grants to members of the panel that helped develop the report, which certainly could impact panel members’ consideration of the issue. That an agency employee or grantee or contractor staff used to work for a company with interest in the report would not have to be noted.

While outside activity or financial disclosure review processes for agency employees may mean that an agency itself is aware that an agency employee contributing to or overseeing a report owns stocks or has other financial or non-financial interests directly relevant to the subject of the report this fact would not necessarily be stated in the public report. Similar requirements may or may not apply to grantees, contractors consultants, or panel members working with the agency. And certainly, there do not appear to be any requirements pertaining to how or if such conflicts are actually noted in agency written works.

With respect to authorship, nothing currently stops an agency from listing in the report as authors, contributors staff, or leaders who at times played a scant role (if any at all) in writing or developing the report. And, conversely, nothing restricts an agency from failing to publicly acknowledge contributions of agency staff, contractors, or consultants whom agency leaders or others may not wish to credit.

The Office of Government Ethics discusses conflicts of interest for various types of employment but does not discuss duties for on-the-job conflicts of interest or written products.

The General Services Administration, which oversees compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, notes conflicts of interest for advisory committee members and some agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration have their own requirements for advisory committee members. Subpart 9.5 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation discusses organizational and consultant conflicts of interest and Part 3 discusses improper business practices and personal conflicts of interest.

Conflicts of interest within grants are overseen by the Office of Management and Budget and agency or Department-level conflict of interest requirements. However, none of these requirements directly establish expectations with respect to published agency reports and written products.

That a key report contributor or panel member may have financial or other interests does not mean that their contribution or the report itself is not valid. Just as in the peer-reviewed literature, the issue is that such information as a report contributor’s or author’s having received or currently receiving grants or contracts, holding ownership or other interests relevant to the report topic(s), or having similar potential conflicts should be affirmatively declared in the report itself.

Similarly, federal officials, contractors, and others who helped develop and write the report or document should be acknowledged. Likewise, those who did not make significant contributions should not be identified as being report authors or project leaders. Relevant financial and other conflicts of interest such as an author’s having a fiduciary or other relationship relevant to a type of product or a key issue discussed at length in the report should be duly acknowledged.

It is neither unfair nor burdensome to ask that agencies acknowledge conflicts of interest that may exist among employees, contractors, panel members, and others and that these conflicts be forthrightly and briefly declared in agency reports just as they would be in peer-reviewed articles. With few exceptions, agency reports also should note the specific authorship and other roles and credit contributions of employees, contractors, grantees, and consultants who may have developed these works.

By subjecting federal agency reports to more formal standards and expectations for authorship and conflict-of-interest disclosure resembling those of peer-reviewed journals, agencies will be better able to build and sustain trust among policymakers and the general public that key journals such as JAMA have earned and strive to maintain.

Mitchell Berger has worked in public and behavioral health at the federal and local levels. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and should not be imputed to any other individual or to any public or private entities.