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The documentary movie Inside Job is a polemical attack on and analysis of the policies and people who contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. It doesn't pretend to be a balanced view.

Some of the most squirm-inducing and uncomfortable moments occur when leading academic economists are asked whether they disclosed any conflicts of interest when publishing on topics where they had also been paid to offer related advice. Mostly they don't seem to think there is any conflict or any need to disclose possible conflict in their academic writings. As one Amazon reviewer says:

More shocking is revelation of how the study of Economics at major US academic centres like Harvard/ Berkeley / Columbia are being corrupted to meet the diktats of powerful banking industry.

The documentary claims that it is uncommon for university departments or journals in economics to mandate the disclosure of conflicts. Medical journals, in contrast, mostly mandate explicit disclosure of all potential conflicts or they won't even review a paper (see the BMJ explanation). So it strikes me as surprising that something similar does not exist in Economics.

Specifically, John Campbell, Chairman of the Harvard Ecomonics Department was asked:

Does Harvard require disclosures of financial conflict of interest in publications?

And he said:

No.

So, is the claim made in Inside Job correct? Are there no standard rules in Academic Journals or institutions to mandate disclosure of potential conflicts?

NB. I suspect this might not be a simple yes/no. If some institutions or journals have tight rules and others do not, it would be useful to have examples in an answer.

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I'll address solely the specific claim that was made in the movie: that Harvard economists are not required to disclose financial conflicts of interest.

(There were two other claims in the movie about particular scientists that failed to disclose conflicts of interest, but the question doesn't ask about those, and I don't see those as claims about a systemic problem. Whether or not those two researchers failed to disclose their conflicts of interest could be determined by examining their papers.)

The claim is false. From Addressing Conflicts of Interest:

The [American Economic Association] and [National Bureau of Economic Research] now require disclosure of authors’ potential financial conflicts of interest in journal articles and working papers, following the practice in the medical profession.

[Harvard Faculty of Arts and Science] faculty members by this June 30 must report annually all financial interests (income or equity) in excess of $5,000 (down from $10,000 previously) from outside entities that may be related to their Harvard responsibilities, including such interests accruing to a spouse and dependent children. (Any equity in a private, for-profit entity has to be reported.) This broadens reporting compared to past practice, when it was up to faculty members’ judgment whether a financial interest represented a potential conflict with their Harvard activities, and so had to be reported; comprehensive reporting is now the default.

  • Without a full transcript this will be hard to prove, but the documentary makes more than just specific claims about Harvard. Other universities and experts are cited. That it didn't just attack Harvard is implicit in the kefuffle that resulted after it was released. For example, see the discussion in this Economist blog. – matt_black Jun 23 '13 at 22:11
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    And another piece of useful context which you omit, is that the Harvard policy you quote was at least partially prompted by the documentary's claims. A possible (good) answer to the question would be: the movie prompted a significant tightening of disclosure rules which had previously been lax. – matt_black Jun 23 '13 at 22:19
  • I just re-watched the movie and can confirm, to the best of my understanding, that the movie only makes specific claims about Harvard, Mishkin, and Porte regarding their financial incentives not being disclosed in their academic publications. – user5582 Jun 24 '13 at 0:12
  • @matt_black Other universities and experts are cited, but not in the combination "received money and did not report it". They list a bunch of academics that received money, but don't make the claim that they also failed to disclose that. – user5582 Jun 24 '13 at 1:26
  • @matt_black Keep in mind that the AEA policy applies to a) the journals the AEA publishes, and b) economists who are members (which is quite a few). Many economists that work at major institutions are also affiliated with the NBER, which requires that they follow the policy too. It's certainly better if every university has such a policy, but it's absence doesn't necessarily mean that economists who work there are completely free from reporting any potential conflicts. – John Bensin Jun 27 '13 at 14:53
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No there aren't rules on disclosure. There are voluntary disclosures, but there are no consequences for not disclosing a source of funding from the banking sector. The medical academics are very differently regulated as the consequences of their conclusions can have severe health effects.

I agree though, that academic economists must disclose their source of funding, but given that it is a recent trend, it has historically not been an issue, but it is now time to address it.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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