External interests

It is a normal part of life to participate in activities or have relationships that are external to the organisation where you study or work. These activities or relationships are external interests.

‘External’ (as in ‘external interests’) refers to interests that are external to your candidature or research – not necessarily external to the University. If you have a staff role at the University separately to your HDR candidature, this could represent an external interest.

Financial interests are usually foremost in the mind, but other interests may also be relevant, including personal, familial, professional and organisational interests.

Researchers need to maintain records of activities or interests that may lead to conflicts of interest.

Conflicts of interest

A conflict of interest exists where there is a divergence between duties or interests of a person and their professional responsibilities (including their duties to the University). The University acknowledges that external interests may give rise to conflicts of interest, and the presence of a conflict of interest does not, of itself, imply that any wrongdoing has occurred or will occur.

Under the Research Code of Conduct, conflicts of interest must be disclosed according to the requirements of the External Interests Policy 2010 and those of any other applicable parties.

Conflicts of interest can be:

  • actual, where you are in a position to be influenced by your interests
  • potential, where you may be influenced by your interests at some stage, or
  • perceived, where you are in a position to appear to be influenced by your interests.

It is not always possible to avoid having a conflict of interest, and what is important is what you do or don’t do once the conflict is evident. If in doubt, it is typically best to disclose, discuss and manage a conflict of interest rather than conceal or ignore.

A useful test to consider is whether, on balance, a fair-minded member of the public (the ‘reasonable person’) is likely to have doubts about your motivation or objectivity. If so, you should declare the interest and develop a plan to avoid or manage the conflict. It can be useful to discuss your situation with your supervisor or a third party so they can give you a ‘reasonable person’ perspective.

The effective management of conflicts of interest is critical in the protection of you and your research, as well as retaining the community’s trust and confidence in the University’s research and education activities.

Declaration of external interests

HDR students are required to make an annual declaration of external interests (DEI). You will receive an email when it is time to complete your DEI and you still need to complete the form if you have no external interests to declare. Declarations are reviewed by lead supervisor, postgraduate coordinator and/or Associate Dean (Research Education), depending on what is declared.

If you are a University staff member as well as a University HDR student, you may need to complete a DEI for your staff role, in addition to your declaration as a HDR student.

For low-risk potential or perceived conflicts, the act of declaring a conflict may be sufficient. You may need to prepare a management plan which sets out the details of how the conflict will be managed or avoided.

Common issue: A researcher has an external interest that is relevant to their research or candidature, but does not declare an interest

Solution: Consider the ‘reasonable person’ test – would a reasonable person have doubts over the motivation or objectivity of the researcher? If so, declare the external interest; a perception of a conflict of interest still needs to be managed. Discuss the situation with your supervisor(s) or a Research Integrity Adviser.

Further requirements

Research funders and publishers also have requirements relating to interests and conflicts of interest. These are typically specified in the instructions to authors, grant information or editorial policies. The requirements can vary, and some are more strenuous than University requirements.

If you have questions, seek advice from your supervisor(s), a senior colleague, your postgraduate coordinator or research education academic director, a Research Integrity Adviser (RIA) or Research Integrity. You can also contact SUPRA for help.

This article was written by the Research Integrity Office.