Rules regarding conflict of interest

The following is a translation of the Swedish document “Jävsregler”. In case of inconsistency or discrepancy between the English translation and the Swedish original, the Swedish original shall prevail.

Regulations on conflicts of interest are ultimately based on the principle of objectivity, described in the Instrument of Government, Chapter 1, Article 9: “Courts of law, administrative authorities and others performing public administration functions shall pay regard in their work to the equality of all before the law and shall observe objectivity and impartiality.” Conflict of interest refers to a situation in which it can be assumed that a decision maker or administrator may lack objectivity in a way that will affect the relevant authority’s position on a certain issue, which in turn calls for disqualification of said decision maker/administrator.

The responsibility for avoiding conflicts of interest ultimately lies with the university management, but in practice, its implementation may be delegated down to an immediate superior. At the same time, anyone who may be assumed to disqualify is under a strict obligation to themselves report this, in accordance with Section 18 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA, 2017:900): “A person who is aware of a circumstance that can be assumed to disqualify them must immediately notify the authority of this”. The use of “can be assumed” and “immediately” is worth noting; this means that the duty to report has a broad application and that potential conflicts of interest must be handled with speed.

A great deal of the responsibility for avoiding conflicts of interest thus lies on the one hand with individual employees, who are obliged to report potentially disqualifying circumstances and, on the other hand, with managers in the organisation, who decide on conflicts of interest. It can be reasonably assumed that in most cases, managers and other employees are fully capable of determining whether or not there is a conflict of interest. In line with the law, normal procedure is thus that an employee who has reason to believe that they may have a conflict of interest must report this to their immediate superior, who will subsequently decide whether this is indeed the case.

If there is a potential conflict of interest, the employee must not participate in any affected decision. It should be noted, however, that APA specifies two scenarios in which the impartiality requirement may be disregarded: Section 16 states that “[i]f it is obvious that the question of impartiality is of no importance, the authority shall disregard the disqualification”, and Section 17 states that a person who has a conflict of interest may still “perform tasks that no one else can perform without a considerable delay in the processing of the matter”. Section 17 should be resorted to only in exceptional cases; authorities are expected to be staffed in a way that in the vast majority of cases, this section will not apply (government bill 2016/17:180, p. 303). As for Linnaeus University, it can be reasonably assumed that there are extremely few situations in which Section 17 must be exercised. 

Conflicts of interest

Potential conflicts of interest constitute a very broad category. Section 16 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) states that for a person to be considered to have a conflict of interest, it is enough that there is some kind of special circumstance that suggests that their impartiality may be questioned. This means that the mere suspicion that a person’s impartiality can be questioned is enough to consider disqualification. It is worth noting that a potential conflict of interest is not the same as an actual conflict of interest, and that a conflict of interest investigation does not automatically lead to disqualification. A conflict of interest can furthermore be disregarded if it is clear that it has no bearing on the relevant case (APA, s 16). Section 16 of APA governs what should be considered as a conflict of interest; Section 17 establishes that a person who has a conflict of interest must not be part of the administration of, or any decision on, the relevant case; and Section 18 states that anyone who may have a conflict of interest is obliged to report this. It is also stipulated that the relevant authority must decide on any conflict of interest as speedily as possible; to this end, a decision support may facilitate administration of potential conflicts of interest, for managers as well as for individual employees.

Appeal of decision made by person who has a conflict of interest

This section concerns procedures for handling a situation where a conflict of interest is disclosed after a decision on the associated issue of fact has been made. If there is a suspicion of a conflict of interest in the exercise of public authority, it should be reported to the Executive Office – either directly, by the person reporting, or by the unit to which the suspected conflict of interest was reported. If there is a suspicion of a conflict of interest in matters of research, it should be reported to the Council for Good Research Practice, if it constitutes a potential breach of good research practice.

If there is a conflict of interest in the exercise of public authority, certain decisions may need to be reviewed by another instance or be revoked and made again. This only concerns appeals of decisions where a conflict of interest has been given as the grounds for appeal.

Cases dealing with employees’ work tasks, internal allocation of resources, or the like cannot be the subject of a conflict of interest in the eyes of the law since these aspects are part of the authority’s function as an employer. However, having close relations involved in the administration of cases like this is nevertheless a breach of university policy, according to which close relations must not make decisions on working conditions.[1]

As regards decisions on matters of education, it should be noted that many such decisions affect individuals, which means that they must not be revoked or changed in a way that will entail a less beneficial situation for those concerned, even if they were made by someone who had a conflict of interest.

As for decisions on matters of research, on the other hand, these do not affect individuals, since research is conducted as part of the researcher’s employment, to the benefit of the university and society, rather than the individual. This kind of decision may thus be revoked, should a conflict of interest be discovered. However, few official decisions concern research.

Finally, it should be noted that matters regarding thesis defences are treated as matters of education rather than research, since they concern examination of an individual. This means that decisions on, for instance, external reviewers or members of an examining committee cannot be revoked once the defence has been successfully completed, even if a conflict of interest is discovered. A thesis defence thus cannot be redone or adjusted after the event. Considering the adverse consequences that a conflict of interest may have for the author of the thesis after the defence, the university must thus be particularly careful not to miss any potential grounds for disqualification in the context of the defence.