Hypocrisy

In civilian life, I am a writing coach, and I preach a pretty hard line about practice and discipline. I help people get their prose into shape by “planning their work and working their plan”. I like to think of myself as a philosopher, but on most days I’m really just a glorified motivational speaker, and, I must admit, a bit of a moralist. I believe that an orderly writing routine makes you, for lack of a better word, a better person.

So I always blush when people ask me how my own writing is going. The truth is that I’m not nearly as disciplined and focused in my scholarship as I would like to be. I try to keep my commitments to this blog, of course. And to my own blogs elsewhere. And every now and then I will accept an invitation to write something for some particular occasion. But the slow, daily work of writing down what I know is probably as difficult for me as it is for everyone else, no matter how many times I say some variant of “just do it”. I’m as imperfect as the next guy.

Now, this blog isn’t about writing but about ethics. And here the same problem exists, though with perhaps even more uncomfortable force, a sense of “shame” if you will. As a member of the Ethics Education Committee, and as a blogger here at the Ethicist, I’m not just bound by the Code of Ethics but bound to promote it. Its preamble states:

AOM members realize that to maintain ethical standards they must make a personal, lifelong commitment to behaving ethically themselves; to encouraging students, supervisees, employees, employers, and colleagues to behave ethically; and to consulting with others when ethical questions arise.

It’s entirely fair to ask how well I live up to that ideal. Not only do I of course fail on occasion to take the most ethical of the available courses of action, I also sometimes fail to encourage it in others and–too often, I’m afraid–to make ethical questions explicit when they arise. How are we to deal with our ethical imperfections? How are we to deal with the ethical imperfections of our ethics educators? Good questions.

Many years ago (and I just realized that I may have reached the age when I can say “When I was young man…”) I wrote a high-spirited defense of hypocrisy. Geoffrey Klempner, who published my piece in his Philosophy for Business newsletter, neatly summarized the underlying idea in his editor’s note: “it is better, more conducive to moral progress, to fail to live up to one’s own high ideals than to adjust one’s ideals downwards to fit one’s practice.” I still believe that is true, and the brief surge of interest in income-proportional penalties for traffic violations, which famously resulted in a $103,000 speeding ticket, reminded me of the example I used back then. Indeed, I see now that the example can be improved.

Suppose you are an anti-speeding crusader and a holder of a relevant political office. In public and in private you rail against the threat that speeding is to our safety, and you are particularly offended by the nonchalance with which wealthy drivers, who also of course happen to own the fastest cars, approach the posted speed limits. To them, a speeding ticket is a negligible cost of car ownership (the whole point of which, they might say, is to get them to where they are going faster), along with insurance, gas, and the car itself. So you introduce legislation to make speeding tickets more of a deterrent force in their lives. And let’s say you get exorbitant $100,000 fines for sufficiently wealthy drivers passed.

And then, of course, you get caught speeding. The media would have what they call a “field day” with this. But why would we find it so funny? As long as you pay the fine, what’s the problem? In the moment, you decided that the risk of such ticket was worth running. You do not believe that you had an excuse that was sufficient to get you off the hook. But the possibility of getting a ticket does deter you from speeding under normal circumstances. It’s just that this particular date was very important to you to keep. So you went for it. And you got caught. It may even happen again but, because you do actually respect the law, and in exactly the way you meant it to be respected when you wrote it, it will happen very rarely. To my mind, that is a sound ethical position to take. (Have at it in the comments if you disagree!)

Closer to home, I’ve been known to ride a pretty high horse on academic misconduct, plagiarism in particular. Some people find my work in this area a bit overwrought, a bit pedantic. I’m sure there are people who would find it amusing if I got caught having plagiarized something. And I can’t say I don’t sometimes feel a bit of anxiety about that. Live by the sword, die by the sword, right? But in such moments I have to remind myself that I know what I would do to correct my error, and that it is in that moment, when I own my mistake and help the community recover from whatever damage my actions may have caused, that my ethical “character” is revealed. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what happens afterwards that matters.

Given the world as it is, people as they are, there’s a sense in which we better hope that we’re all hypocrites. That is, we better hope that each of us is beholden to a higher sense of justice than our actions commonly display. We are striving upward.

Authorship

I’ve been having a number of conversations about authorship lately. This is an increasingly important issue, as can be seen by the growing amount of multi-authored papers and, especially, the increasingly common appearance of papers co-authored by PhD supervisors and their students. This isn’t always (or even mostly) wrong; we just have to understand the right and the wrong way about it. The above video has some excellent observations about this, and all I want to do in this post is to identify one don’t and two dos.

Don’t think of authorship as an honor. That is, don’t think that you are winning something by being an author or that you can do someone a favor by making them an author of a paper that you wrote. Do bring in a co-author if you think they can make a contribution to your paper, and if someone has made a substantial contribution to your paper or to your research then you can consider asking them to come on board as a co-author. But in that case do also remember that being an author brings responsibility. An author guarantees that the data was collected in a sound and responsible manner and that the paper was written with care, i.e., with respect for the sources.

An author is implicated in the quality of the paper and can, of course, take credit when the paper is good. But if parts of the paper turn out to be plagiarised, or the data turns out to be fabricated, all the author’s share the blame. Authorship, that is, is not an honor one bestows; it is a responsibility one takes for the contribution one has made.

Retraction: A growing, if uncomfortable, state of affairs

Retraction of peer review published articles has become an increasing activity not only in the sciences, but in both social sciences and in management. They are up by an order of magnitude in recent times. A global flood of faculty are under increasing pressure to publish in top journals whose publication ‘slots’ haven’t increased in accordance with demand.

One result, it would seem, are attempts to ‘cut corners’, in order to enhance the publication prospects of our work. The consequences may lead to erroneous publication, however, the sword of Damocles hangs over all our heads, leading to retraction, as well as significant public and professional embarrassment.

We have recently observed a number of well known cases in the field of management, including both a German Professor and an American scholar who had multiple publications retracted from leading management journals. Both cases engendered considerable controversy, rebuke, counter rebuke, litigation and professional frustration, as co-authors, senior and jr. scholars, editors, and reviewers found themselves involved in heated debates regarding the merits, ethics, and legal rights surrounding these retractions.

This blog cannot adjudicate regarding the decisions made by editors or publishers that eventually lead to retraction, nor is that our goal. However, it is worth noting that our own code of ethics addresses this issue squarely; by stating:

“if AOM members discover significant errors in their publication or presentation of data, they take appropriate steps to correct such errors in the form of a correction, retraction, published erratum, or other public statement”.

The site, retraction watch is a fountain of information regarding when, how and why these actions take place. A MacArtthur foundation grant insures that the founding writers, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, will be reporting on the ethical errors, omissions, and sometimes outrageous antics of our profession for some time to come. They have called for a journal transparency index asking journals to formally codify many of the ethical guidelines that already exist in our own Code of Ethics

They include:

  • The journal’s review protocol, including whether or not its articles are peer-reviewed; the typical number of reviewers, time for review, manuscript acceptance rate, and details of the appeals process
  • Whether the journal requires that underlying data are made available
  • Whether the journal uses plagiarism detection software and reviews figures for evidence of image manipulation
  • The journal’s mechanism for dealing with allegations of errors or misconduct, including whether it investigates such allegations from anonymous whistleblowers
  • Whether corrections and retraction notices are as clear as possible, conforming to accepted publishing ethics guidelines such as those from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) or the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE)

As management scholars, surprisingly, we are only beginning to learn the importance of some of these critical issues related to the scientific method including replication, data recording and data sharing, enabling others to verify the accuracy of our analyses.

I personally recall a senior editor writing that because replication was of no interest to their journal, a replicated and extended finding that demonstrated one of their previously well cited publications was erroneous was not within the journal’s mandate, of no concern, and thus subject to immediate desk rejection. Taking the point of view of this editor, one might determine that retractions or replications that undermine previously published work only serve to detract from a journal’s reputation.   However, from a field perspective, our contribution to science is predicated on our ability to adopt and ensure that rigorous standards are adhered to, even of the cost seems unreasonable to the average scholar (such as a decision to retract erroneous work).

No doubt, there will be an increasing number of ‘incidents’ of retraction as our scholarly community begins to embrace something akin to a transparency index, and as we more literally interpret AOM’s code of ethics regarding research and publication. While the process may be somewhat painful, I look forward to the outcome in terms of increased scientific reliability.

How to Proceed

It is unfortunate, but of course understandable, that ethical issues arise and are discussed in terms of “violations”. While one could imagine a “positive” ethics, modeled on, say, positive psychology or, more recently, positive organization scholarship, the focus is conventionally on the avoidance of wrong, not the promotion of right. One reason for this, especially in a “business” environment, which is founded, famously (or infamously, as you choose), on the idea that the “private vices” can foster “public virtues”, is that ethics is seen by many as a kind of “minimal” condition for conduct. In a certain sense, it is not enough to be virtuous. “At the end of the day,” as they say, there’s the “bottom line”, etc.

So it’s very much a question of where to draw the line. Of when to take a stand. Of how to, let’s say, insist on ethical behavior. And here I think it can be useful to take a procedural stance. While there are many, perhaps all too common, behaviors that are in some sense “unethical” and could rightly be called out as “wrong”, doing so may involve a disproportionate amount of effort and discomfort to the parties involved. Certainly, accusers may find themselves getting into a longer and more painful process than they bargained for. But even the perpetrator, even when actually guilty of something, may be subjected to reprisals that, when we think about it, are finally a bit cruel or unusual. (See Jon Ronson’s detailed piece on social media blow-ups, for example.)  It is worth practicing a bit of care, therefore, both in one’s allegations and one’s responses to them.

The AOM Code of Ethics tells us that:

When AOM members have substantial reason to believe that there has been an ethical violation by another AOM member, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual. If an informal resolution appears appropriate or possible, or AOM members seek advice about how to proceed, they may contact the AOM’s Ethics Ombudsperson for guidance. (5.4)

Notice both that there’s a requirement here for a “substantial reason”, and for some attempt to resolve it directly with the wrongdoer. That sets the bar for engagement pretty high, but I think for the most part appropriately.  We can’t have a system where every small perceived infraction has be to settled by a formal process (in the AOM’s case, that means the Ethics Adjudication Committee, of course.) But I think we also have to keep in mind that there are situations where the requirement of direct confrontation with the alleged perpetrator is too much to ask of the victim, or even just the person who discovers the violation.

The two kinds of case that immediately come to mind are (1) when PhD students and junior faculty discover research misconduct in the their supervisors or superiors and (2) those involving harassment (including, but not limited to sexual harassment). The second kind often has a subtext of assault, i.e., even if the police would not deem it serious enough to intervene, the behavior is both unprofessional and in some sense “physical”. I.e., the “violation” is also a kind of violence.

In such situations, where the power dynamic is not conducive to an individual simply ” bringing [the ethical violation] to the attention of [the violator]”, we need some institutional frameworks. These should, of course, be available in the immediate environment (the research environment) but can also be available in the broader professional environment, which is constituted in part by professional associations like the AOM. Understanding the options available to both the accuser and the accused is part of our ethical competence. And this blog is of course an attempt to contribute to building that competence.

 

How should we maintain a professional environment?

As co-chair of the AOM Ethics Education Committee, I’ve had a surprising number of individuals approach me with personal or professional violations, often asking what can be done, and what should be done. Thomas is going to examine some of the procedural components in his subsequent comments, but I thought I would begin with a few important underlying fundamentals.

First, our code of ethics is actually a statement of principles and guidelines. Unlike public laws, enforced by police, a judicial system, and constructed by representatives, our set of ethical principles are meant to inform, rather than restrict. The consequences of transgressing even the most important principle, no matter how blatantly, is basically limited to the very rare case of expulsion from the Academy of Management – not – pointedly – from the ‘Academy’ itself. So, at the end of the day, we are in the process of diffusing a set of principles that we have collectively fashioned to represent a normative behavior that we expect our colleagues to engage in. However, simply reading them – and being familiar with the professional standards and goals that we agree upon – is a marked step toward increasing our accountability, and our professional ethics. We owe it to ourselves, to our students, and to our profession to become familiar with this code. If you haven’t recently read it, I highly recommend doing so.

Many of the issues brought to may attention recently – ranging from the complexity of journal retraction, to issues regarding academic standards and authorship conventions – could be solved by simply behaving in resonance with item 3 , professional principles of our code, stating the importance of …”recognition of the dignity and personal worth of colleagues are required”.

It all sounds very simple – dignity and self worth – but what I see happening all too often is that the competitive nature of our profession is undermining our sense of community, of collegiality, and eventually impacting the quality and utility of what we accomplish as a profession. It is not possible to distance ourselves from our ethical responsibilities and focus exclusively on publication, without understanding the collective interpretations of our actions. Theoretical work on eugenics, lacking important ethical codes, resulted in the collapse of German academia and led to mass extermination. A very interesting study of the method and consequences of professional and academic demise can be found in the diaries of Victor Kelmper, here: http://www.amazon.com/Will-Bear-Witness-1942-1945-Diary/dp/0375756973/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1FZNMKEJD6SPBPZ5FP86

When each of us makes scholarly decisions – seemingly as trivial as checking the box for reject or major revision – we enact important elements of our code of ethics. Are we trying to advantage our own work at the expense of others? Are we interested in furthering our scholarly knowledge, or in advancing a particular opinion? Are we focusing on our last rejection, or are we ‘paying it forward’, primarily considering the advancement of managerial knowledge?

I invite you to share your experiences of ethical ‘forks in the road’ in this blog, anonymously, or otherwise, so that we can all benefit from our collective experiences.

Education and Adjudication

I’m gearing up to write a few posts on the procedural aspects of ethics at the Academy of Management. What happens when someone does something wrong and someone else tries to hold him or her accountable? Or what happens when someone who hasn’t done anything wrong at all is accused of wrongdoing? How are such disputes resolved? What role does a professional organization like the Academy of Management play in them?

Before I do that, however, I have to remind readers of the difference between the Ethics Education Committee (EEC) and the Ethics Adjudication Committee (EAC). This blog is written by members of the EEC and our aim is simply to teach the values and principles of the Code of Ethics to the members. The charge of the EAC is different. It is set up specifically to apply the Code in particular cases that are brought before it. In the middle, if you will (I’m actually not sure that’s the right metaphor, but let’s see how it goes), we find the Ombudsman, who is charged with helping people work out their disagreements informally and suggest formal ways to proceed if necessary.

It’s tempting to think of ethics education as preventative and ethics adjudication as punitive. But that’s a very narrow view. After all, our aim in the EEC is not just to discourage people from doing the wrong thing. Our aim is to show how doing the right thing “works”, i.e., to give a more detailed sense of what ethical behavior looks like, so that members become more capable of it, and even so that it will be preferred to less ethical behavior. Instead of reducing education to prevention, I’d prefer to elevate it to edification. Likewise, “adjudication” does not just mean punishing the bad guy. It means identifying the wrong that was done and finding ways to correct it. Sometimes this does mean that the wrongdoer needs to be identified as such and stripped of some specific set of privileges. (This is rarely something the AOM does, I should point out.) But what is most important is to reach a determination of the facts, and an assessment of right and wrong, so that the community can move forward.

Mistakes happen. Outright bad behavior happens too. But if it is not spoken about, or talked about without reaching a conclusion, then it has the potential to undermine the trust that scholarship requires.