A conflict of interest arises when personal interest prevents an individual from performing his/her professional or public obligations in an unbiased manner. The consequences of these conflicts can be the loss of objectivity, the potential for decreased effectiveness as a professional, and the possibility of harm and/or exploitation of another party. Because objectivity is the essence of science, professional and scientific judgments that may be impaired by conflicts of interest are of concern. Thus, professional sociologists must be alert to and guard against conflicts of interest, whether real or apparent.
Although financial interests have often been considered as the source of conflict of interest, bias can stem from other sources--personal interests and intellectual leanings (Korenman and Shipp, 1994, p. 131). Financial interests are tangible and therefore easier to detect. For example, a researcher may have a financial interest in a company and be asked to determine the effectiveness of a new service provided by the company. The results of this evaluation may determine the viability and profitability of the new service and therefore affect the financial gain of the researcher. However, the extent to which financial interests introduce bias is not always as clear cut as this example, particularly if these interests are disclosed and monitored closely by others to guarantee the integrity of the research or professional service.
Personal interests (such as situations where, as a professional, one is asked to provide services to a friend or relative) can result in potentially troublesome dual relationships. Faculty in a university may have the spouse of a close friend or colleague in class. The ability of the faculty to remain objective in evaluating the performance of the colleague's spouse can be compromised because of its potential for damaging the friendship with a colleague. One's intellectual leanings, (e.g., "pet" theories and ideas) is also a potential source of bias when one is asked to evaluate another's work that is contradictory or one step ahead of your own. As a reviewer of journal manuscripts or grant applications in such situations, one's ability to remain unbiased and refrain from doing "harm" to a competitor is compromised.
All of these situations represent a conflict of interest; they are problematic situations for professionals that are committed to carrying out their responsibilities in an unbiased and objective manner. They represent difficult situations that require scrutiny and hard choices. They also represent situations in which the conflicting values are not always obvious. This emphasizes the importance of consulting with colleagues as to the "appearance" of a conflict and disclosing potential conflicts to appropriate authorities.
As a professional, handling conflicts of interest involves recognizing situations in which there is a conflict of interest, avoiding relationships that might precipitate such conflicts, and disclosing conflicts to affected parties. Professionals refrain from undertaking an activity when they know that a conflict of interest might impair their ability to discharge duties impartially or effectively. Sociologists are to disclose all relevant financial, personal, or professional relationships that might lead to a conflict of interest--for themselves as well as family members--to their institutions and in public speeches and writing and to disclose such relationships related to the sponsor of their professional work.