John Doe endorsed me as an expert in watching paint dry!

It seems as though few days pass between individuals ‘recommending me’ on researchgate or Linkedin, for all types of skills. It started innocuously enough – when I received a recommendation on my main field of study from a colleague who knew me fairly well. What began as a friendly ‘tip of the hat’ has blossomed into a full scale encyclopedia of ratings (all, naturally positive – as nobody seems to dis-recommend me for anything) of just about everything related to what I might or might not do as a scholar, faculty member, or even dog walker. There are now dozens of references, some by people I barely know, or might not even know, or ever meet. So, what’s going on?

Presumably, there is a tit-for-tat process going on, whereby I am expected, in turn, to recommend the colleague I don’t even know or have hardly spoken with as a ‘expert’ in the field of xyz. In fact, these two rating organizations ‘helpfully’ remind me every so often to do so, by providing lists of people I may or may not know, along with questions “do you recommend Rumplestilskin as an expert public speaker”? (never mind that I don’t know who they are, and have never heard them speak publicly or privately). The assumption is that given that they were so nice as to recommend my paint drying observational skills, I will return the favor by also highly recommending them (I often do). It reminds me a bit of when I collected baseball cards as a kid – more was always better. Unfortunately, mom gave away the box and I no longer have my Mickey Mantle rookie card – although I’m not sure who will take my expired Linked-in recommendations – maybe I’ll just have to assume a new identity.

So, what’s going on, anyway, with all these internet evaluation schemes? In an op-ed in the NY times last year, David Brooks pointed out that while the private sector demands for peer-to-peer rating systems have obvious advantages, there is as yet no role for government in terms of regulating peer based reference systems. They exist in a ‘grey zone’ between bake sales and personal security. Yet, as these systems increasingly take on currency in our professional lives (e.g. rate my professor), it seems like our Academy might want to play a more active role. Certainly, our professional associations should be drawing certain red lines regarding appropriate behavior of our membership, including consulting roles that seem to be reflected in these reference systems. The recent shocking revelation that the American Psychology Association provided supporting recommendations to the US government regarding consulting about torture suggests that professional organizations will increasingly play a public role in providing both public and private ethical guidance and boundaries related to public trust in the integrity of our professional activities.

I was able to find two related passages in our code of ethics that obliquely address the importance of providing accurate assessments:

Credentials and capabilities. It is the duty of consultants to represent their credentials and capabilities in an accurate and objective manner.

And later: AOM members do not make public statements, of any kind, that are false, deceptive, misleading, or fraudulent, either because of what they state, convey, or suggest or because of what they omit, including, but not limited to, false or deceptive statements concerning other AOM members.

So, the next time you are asked to evaluate a colleague – someone you might barely know – and have the urge to ‘return the favor’, give some consideration to who you are recommending, and what you are recommending them for. If we are ever able to enhance peer-to-peer reference systems such that they actually have an impact, it will be critical to carefully follow the recommendations outlined in our own code of ethics.

Working and trusting your co-authors

In the past few weeks, I’ve received a couple of examples of co-author oddities that I will shortly discuss. Because many of us work simultaneously in many virtual teams, we may have a less than comfortable knowledge of the ethical red lines of our co-authors. I have seen the result of working with co-authors we are unfamiliar with to seriously compromise the scholarly integrity of seemingly innocent contributors. In a few cases, reputations and careers have been seriously undermined.

I have always found it strange that we scholars tend to assume high integrity on all members of our profession, as though ethical norms are universally agreed upon and followed. In fact, cultures vary greatly, as do individual interpretations of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. We do ourselves a service when we carefully investigate the norms and practices of potential collaborators. Sometimes, asking a former collaborator can provide insight. Otherwise, frank discussions regarding what they deem acceptable, or not, can be quite illuminating. What is most important is that the conversation take place before collaborative work is undertaken.

In one case discussed with me, a scholar was informed that a paper was published, with their name on it, only upon publication of the manuscript. The journal was not a very prestigious one, but the scholar had no idea the paper was being submitted, and it was published with another co-author that he was unfamiliar with.

In the second case, a scholar was working on a manuscript over a number of years, that had already gone through a few rejections, and elaborate revisions. Only following a specific inquiry was the co-author informed that her colleague had already published a ‘stripped down’ version of the paper in a lower tier journal, as sole author. This scholar was concerned that this prior publication invalidated the subsequent, more developed one (which had never cited the earlier work) and was unsure what the correct ethical protocol was.

Both of these cases illustrate problems surrounding intellectual property, integrity of authorship, and the importance of trusting, working relationships. Most journals accept submissions whereby a single author signs for the copy write on behalf of the remaining authors. However, consultation with the entire authorship team is not only expected, it is also specified in AOM’s code of ethics, as follows:

4.2.3.1. In cases of multiple authorship, AOM members confer with all other authors prior to submitting work for publication, and they establish mutually acceptable agreements regarding submission.

The second case, where related work is left un-cited, is perhaps somewhat more common. Many journals are now explicitly requiring submitting authors to verify that the work they are submitting is not based on previously published data or research, and if so, precisely where, and how the work differs. Because of increasing pressures to publish, scholars are increasingly enticed to ‘salami slice’ their work into multiple articles, even when publishing all the findings in a single article would be more appropriate. Editors have told me that they expect at least 60% of a paper to be new, however, they require the initial work in order to evaluate the measure of originality of the submission. Fortunately, AOM’s code of ethics is explicitly clear on the issue of citing previously related work:

4.2.3.5. When AOM members publish data or findings that overlap with work they have previously published elsewhere, they cite these publications. AOM members must also send the prior publication or in-press work to the AOM journal editor to whom they are submitting their work.

Very few of us would do banking with an uninsured bank or money lender lacking clear and transparent procedures. We would want to know that the staff of the bank are properly bonded, adhere to strict ethical guidelines, and will perform according to normative expectations. While the official laws regulating academic research are less institutionalized and so less codified, working with someone entails even more trust than we might have in our day to day banking. Money can easily be replaced (and is often insured). While we often focus on the technical competency of our co-authors, it behooves all of us to closely examine the ethical compasses of those we work with.

Reputations, once damaged, are very difficult to reestablish.