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October 2021 – Personal Involvement with Research: Conflict of Interest?

Author: Wietse Wiersma

Researchers are humans, who despite their professional focus on objective collection of evidence, are also moved by internal motivations. In this story we share personal and collective ideas about what personal involvement means for what we research, how we do it and what we want to achieve with it. What are the implications of seeing personal involvement as a potential conflict of interest?

A personal narrative

When I developed my PhD proposal, I spent time uncovering my personal drivers. Interestingly, I can trace these drivers back to sources at various points in time, where they developed for unique reasons. My ‘ideal PhD’ would consist of research that is on the molecular scale, that is interdisciplinary, that involves smallholder farmers and that takes place in or close to Colombia. Scale relates to my personality, wanting to know exactly how something works. Interdisciplinarity seems part nature (I love learning) and part nurture (it is a buzzword that seems essential in new research projects). Smallholder farmers go back to idealistic teenage years, when I ‘wanted to make the world a better place.’ Colombia is a country I had wanted to visit since I started university and that I fell in love with once I did my internship there; I read about it in a travel magazine and it fed my desire to leave the quiet Dutch town where I lived most of my life.

After this reflection on what I wanted to do and why, I saw how these drivers influenced the research topic and methods that I built my proposal around. Don’t get me wrong: I address relevant scientific knowledge gaps and important societal challenges. Yet my work is partly driven by personal involvement. It made me wonder whether this is something to be addressed in codes of conduct for research integrity.

Instead of being guided by financial interests or influenced by certain stakeholders, they were my own drivers and convictions that led me in designing my project.

Every researcher has a different story. Delving into the diversity of our discussion group, we explored how in general personal involvement influences the way we do research, and what we want to achieve with that research.

Five Categories of Personal Involvement

During the conversations five categories emerged of the different ways in which we can be personally involved with our research:

  1. Shared stories; cacao or coffee can be part of our story. This could be our personal story, as perhaps we grew up surrounded by these crops. It could also be a wider, more diffuse story, since perhaps we lived in a country where the crops play an important role. Such ‘personal stories’ can be part of the reasons for doing research.
  2. Link to producers; this point is more tangible. Perhaps we have family or friends who grow these coffee or cacao, or we were even involved in the production of chocolate. Having seen first-hand the cultivation or processing of these crops may have strengthened our interest in them.
  3. Nationality; in the home country of some participants cacao or coffee play an important role in social, economic or political processes. An example is the role of cacao as a ‘crop for peace’ in Colombia, where it can replace illicit crops.
  4. Selfish reasons; not meant in a negative way, but as researchers we may have a drive to do research in a certain location, or using a specific method, simply because it appeals to us. Such a drive can be strong but difficult to trace back.
  5. Conviction of methods; for a variety of reasons we may be convinced that the future of cacao or coffee could be made more sustainable through a certain pathway, like agroforestry or the use of natural insects to control pests. We may want to do research on these topics because we think they hold great value.


Figure created by Natalia Moreno Ramírez

While discussing personal involvement we learned that it is relevant to consider our position (that of the researcher) in the value chain ‘system’ of cacao or coffee. For example, when working on certification schemes for sustainable crop production it may be felt that the farmers are underrepresented. Consequently, in research one may wish to give a stronger voice to farmers, which in turn influences the research methods that are chosen: there could be a stronger focus on conducting interviews than warranted in the absence of such personal involvement or conviction.

Our personal involvement can in part be shaped by our ideas about how we relate to other stakeholders in the value chain.

Interest in Research Output

Do our personal motivations described above also influence what we want to achieve with our research? Reflecting on this question, we distilled several objectives that stem in part from personal involvement:

  1. Showing a more nuanced picture: for example, as researchers we may wish to tell positive stories about successful cacao and coffee projects in our home country to provide a counterbalance for predominantly negative stories often shared in the media.
  2. Promoting a specific innovation: for example, researching the potential of agroforestry or biological pest control may lead us to reach out and communicate about this topic to spread awareness.
  3. Giving a voice to underrepresented groups: from personal involvement may follow the ambition to make stakeholders heard that are often overlooked, such as smallholder farmers in sustainability certification schemes.

Is personal involvement a conflict of interest?

Personal involvement with our research is not recognized as a conflict of interest in codes of conduct, yet reflecting on it can be revealing and exciting as we get to know ourselves a bit better. Researchers are people, who inevitably experience feelings and emotions related to their topic. This is not necessarily problematic, but being open about it towards peers, stakeholders and ultimately ourselves is important because it explains in part what we research and how we do it.

Author: Wietse Wiersma
Editor: Hannington Bukomeko

The importance of cacao and coffee in society can hardly be overstated. Caffeine in coffee is the World’s number one drug. Cacao is known as the food of the gods. As globalized commodities, understanding the value chains of both crops is complex. Yet only by merging perspectives can we create sustainable production systems. Our discussion group aims to “explore the width of scientific research to create sustainable cacao and coffee value chains from beans to beverage.” This story is about what we do.

We are a group of early career scientists from Wageningen University & Research and beyond, breaking our own bubbles. As scientists, it is like we are always following rivers upstream, encountering tributaries, trying to find sources that feed the ocean of knowledge. We think of our own exploration as crucial, but really, it is only a small part of a solution awaiting discovery. With our discussion group, we try to understand how our sole tributary flows into larger streams to enable Sustainable Cacao & Coffee futures.

Cacao and coffee are tropical crops. They intricately connect with world history and have great social, cultural and spiritual significance that pre-dates globalized value chains. Nowadays, beans produced in Ghana are, more often than not, consumed as chocolate in Germany. From the farm to the table challenges abound that threaten the sustainability of the chain. Researchers are one of the many actors in this chain (after all, little research is done without coffee…).

Discussion Group Learning Outcomes

Beans at the Center

Discussion groups at universities are common platforms for early career researchers to interact. We have an original approach by placing cacao and coffee at the center. Around the beans, we bring together all research perspectives along the value chain. Our discussions are thematic and develop around topics and questions that all of us deal with: What is my role and responsibility as a researcher? How does my research contribute to sustainable cacao and coffee? How do my personal motivations shape the way I do research?

The First Meeting

The first virtual meeting of the group started with introductions, which demonstrated a nice overview of a diverse group. Participants come from Latin-America, Africa, Asia and Europe, and research is being done on all these continents. There is a slight overrepresentation of people in soil and plant science, but the spectrum includes food safety, chemistry and social sciences. Besides participating in the discussions, networking is an important benefit to the group.

An interesting result of this diversity is that we may have different ideas of what sustainability means or how to achieve it. Coming back to the metaphor: how do rivers flow smoothly and what removes possible barriers to work towards sustainability. If you were to sail down the value chain you would find us at different places along the way. We would talk to you in our own language like a local guide explaining what there is to see and what we can do to make the river better. By talking to each other in discussion sessions, we device a common language and learn to communicate about our research with other scientists.

Future Sessions

We do not know yet what will come out of our discussions. Nevertheless, we want to write stories that illustrate what happens when scientists from diverse fields get together to discuss beans. We hope to show, through insights from our thematic discussions, how fascinatingly complex and important it is to build sustainable cacao and coffee futures. Ideally this can stimulate conversations beyond the group. Finally, it will become clear that we are people growing personally and professionally via our love for knowledge.

Go to group page


Wietse Wiersma

PhD candidate Soil Chemistry and Chemical Soil Quality, Wageningen University


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