When scholars are sued for their research

I was told an interesting story recently, and while I am not fully certain about the details or validity, I thought it would make an interesting subject to discuss. The story went like this:

Two faculty members were involved, separately, in doing research on a similar subject – in this case, something related to genetic research. One faculty member believes the other has followed a completely erroneous methodology, essentially invalidating that persons’ work. They sit and discuss this over lunch, and the person accused of making the error get’s furious and storms out. A week or two later, the ‘accuser’ gets a letter from the other faculty member’s lawyer. It is a cease and desist letter, indicating that any further mention of his opinion regarding the asserted methodological errors or limitations, in any public capacity whatsoever, will be met with an anti-defamation lawsuit.

Lawsuits by the private sector against academics are not particularly new. Firms have a vested interest in protecting their businesses and their reputations against slander. So, when one professor asserted that a private firm was a consistent violator of labor laws, they engaged a lawyer in an attempt to set the record straight.

In this case, the lawyer for the firm stated: ”It’s not our desire to destroy anyone or harm anyone. If we could arrive at some accommodation to set this situation right and to set the record straight, that’s all we’re looking for. We just want the truth.”

Of course, what is ‘true’ can be quite subjective, as any reviewer or scholar will freely admit. While many of us maintain we are in the business of seeking truth, or something closely akin, one person’s truth is another person’s nonsense. Fortunately, academics, as it turns out, are typically insulated from such lawsuits in most countries due to protections of academic freedom and free speech. Imagine if every paper we wrote was subject to a lawsuit by anyone, colleague or not, who didn’t agree with our methodology, conclusions or theoretical framework.

So, what does AOM’s code of ethics have to say on this subject? Well, broadly, we begin with integrity:

AOM members seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of their profession. In these activities AOM members do not steal, cheat, or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact. They strive to keep their promises, to avoid unwise or unclear commitments, and to reach for excellence in teaching, scholarship, and practice. They treat students, colleagues, research subjects, and clients with respect, dignity, fairness, and caring. They accurately and fairly represent their areas and degrees of expertise.

Further, we have clear suggestion in reference to our professional environment:

  1. To the Academy of Management and the larger professional environment. Support of the AOMs mission and objectives, service to the AOM and its institutions, and recognition of the dignity and personal worth of colleagues are required. We accomplish these aims through:
  •  Sharing and dissemination of information. To encourage meaningful exchange, AOM members should foster a climate of free interchange and constructive criticism within the AOM and should be willing to share research findings and insights fully with other members.
  •  Membership in the professional community. It is the duty of AOM members to interact with others in our community in a manner that recognizes individual dignity and merit.

4.1.3.  AOM members take particular care to present relevant qualifications to their research or to the findings and interpretations of their research. AOM members also disclose underlying assumptions, theories, methods, measures, and research designs that are relevant to the findings and interpretations of their work.

  • 1.4.  In keeping with the spirit of full disclosure of methods and analyses, once findings are publicly disseminated, AOM members permit their open assessment and verification by other responsible researchers, with appropriate safeguards, where applicable, to protect the anonymity of research participants.
  • 1.5.  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.

Thus, in the case of our two faculty members , it appears as though resorting to legal means in order to protect one’s reputation – accurately or not – is a deviation from our professional norms. Rather than hiring a lawyer, the offended scholar would be better advised to take the argument to the journals. Further, if true, it demonstrates a scholarly insecurity and fear of a critique of that person’s reputation that almost defies my imagination. If our scholarly opinions become shuttered due to the capability of a disagreeing scholar to employ an expensive lawyer, the entire foundation of our scholarship becomes undermined.

Leave a Reply