Conflict of Interest Statement
To avoid conflicts of interest (COIs) between my journalism and communications work, I follow the guidelines below. Please feel free to contact me with questions or feedback on how to improve my practices at robertakwok (at) gmail (dot) com. I may revise these policies as I receive input from colleagues and as journalism organizations release new guidance for freelancers.
I maintain a spreadsheet listing all the communications work I've done since I began freelancing, including the client name, dates, sector, type of work, frequency, and topics covered. The spreadsheet also lists my donations, political activity, speaking engagements, awards, travel and food reimbursements, and family connections.
When I pitch stories to journalism editors or when they solicit work from me for the first time, I send them a brief summary of any communications work that might present a potential COI, along with a link to the spreadsheet. I also re-send this information to editors when discussing new assignments that might raise COI questions, even if we have an established relationship.
I try to minimize overlap in the fields I cover in my journalism and communications work.
My current communications work usually focuses on these topics:
Management, including economics, finance, accounting, and operations research
Human diseases and treatments
Molecular biology, cell biology, genetics, and neuroscience research for biomedical purposes
My current journalism work is fairly wide-ranging but usually focuses on one of these topics:
Ecology and environment
Animal behavior and physiology
Scientific software tools
Occasionally, I accept a journalism assignment that is in some way related to one of my communications fields — for example, a science careers story about scientists working in the gig economy. However, I do so only if the story seems unlikely to intersect directly with my communications clients and does not cover the subfields in which I have previously done corporate work (see “Corporate Work” section below).
In general, I avoid using sources from communications clients in my journalism stories. However, there are a few gray areas.
Departments within large institutions
Some of my regular communications clients are departments or schools within a university (for example, the business management school at Northwestern University). I don't write journalism stories that focus on researchers at those universities, either in the department/school I write for or in other departments/schools. I would not completely rule out the possibility of using a relevant source from a different department/school within that university as a minor secondary voice in a story (e.g. an ecologist at Northwestern), but I would discuss the question with my editor first.
Editorially-independent publications at institutions
I have written for publications that are based at or funded by research-related organizations but are editorially independent (for example, Sapiens magazine at the Wenner-Gren Foundation). I consider that work to be journalism, not communications, so I would not rule out writing a story for another journalism publication about researchers affiliated with those organizations. However, I would disclose the connection to my editor and discuss before proceeding.
Past communications work
If my work for an organization was either (1) a regular gig that took place at least three years ago or (2) sporadic work that took place at least one year ago (e.g. a couple of articles for a university alumni magazine), I might consider writing a story that focused on researchers at that institution, provided that they were not connected to that previous communications work and my editor was comfortable with it. The exception is corporate clients; I would never use them as sources.
Other journalists have correctly pointed out that avoiding relevant sources in order to avoid a conflict of interest is, in fact, also a conflict of interest. I try to reduce the chances of getting into these situations by separating my beats, as outlined in the previous section. In some cases, the solution is to include the source but add a disclosure note to the story.
I have written for three corporate clients during my freelancing career:
Cure Forward, a start-up (now defunct) that aimed to connect cancer patients with clinical trials. I wrote three articles for their website describing how scientists discovered that certain genes were connected to cancer. (2015-16)
Covance, a contract research organization (CRO) that designs and runs clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies; Covance's parent company is LabCorp, a large medical testing company. I wrote content such as white papers, case studies, webinar abstracts, blog posts, short e-books, and newsletter articles, aimed at pharmaceutical firms that might hire CROs to run trials. Topics included liver disease, orphan drugs, biosimilars, FDA regulations, and mobile health. (2015-17)
NanoString Technologies, a start-up that manufactures devices to aid genetic research (primarily in biomedical fields) and cancer diagnosis. I wrote a white paper describing how various scientists had used the technology and a journal paper describing a new genetic analysis technique. (2016-17)
I no longer write for corporate clients. However, given that some of this work is fairly recent, I currently avoid writing any journalism stories about drug development, medical testing, cancer, or biomedical genetic analysis.
I did some of my communications work as a subcontractor:
From 2015-17, I worked as a contract writer for Pixel Theory, a science and technology communications company. Pixel Theory's clients include many companies such as Merck, MilliporeSigma, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola. Of those clients, I wrote only for Covance, the CRO described in the "Corporate Work" section above.
In 2016 and 2018, I worked on contract writing projects for Message Lab, a content agency for health care, biotech, and research organizations. Message Lab's clients include many companies and organizations such as Microsoft, Higi, Seattle Children's Hospital, and Strong Against Cancer. Of those clients, I wrote only for the nonprofits Center for Infectious Disease Research and Atrium Health.
One might ask whether I have a conflict with Pixel Theory's and Message Lab's clients whom I did not write for (e.g. Microsoft). I don’t yet have a clear answer. However, if one of those organizations was a potential source for a story, I would disclose the connection to my editor and ask if they had any concerns.