The Obligation to Publish

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit melancholy about the my obligations to speak publicly about what I know. This has affected both my contributions to this blog, and my work on my longstanding blog about academic writing. It’s not, of course, that I don’t know anything, nor that I don’t have anything I want to say; it’s just a sort of reticence about engaging with others. It will, of course, pass in due time, and it’s probably not something to worry about. But it does raise an interesting ethical question: do we have an ethical obligation to say publicly what’s on our mind?

The Code tells us that we have an obligation

2. To the advancement of managerial knowledge. Prudence in research design, human subject use, and confidentiality and reporting of results is essential. Proper attribution of work is a necessity. We accomplish these aims through:

  •   Conducting and reporting. It is the duty of AOM members conducting research to design, implement, analyze, report, and present their findings rigorously.

I imagine most people read this with an emphasis on “rigorously”, i.e., as a responsibility when we do conduct research and report it to do so rigorously. But I think we do well to keep in mind that if we spent our entire scholarly careers conducting no research at all, or not reporting whatever research we did conduct, we would in fact be shirking an important responsibility.

Reporting our research opens it to criticism by our peers. It allows us to be corrected in our views wherever they happen to be erroneous. One of the most important reasons to publish, that is, is to give our peers an opportunity to tell us where we have gone wrong, so we can stop misleading our students about it, for example. But it is also a way of informing others about results that might call their previously held views into question. If I know that something you think is true is actually false (or vice versa) then I have an obligation to share that knowledge with you. That’s part of what it means to be an academic.

There’s an interesting variation on this theme in the current discussion of the publication of “null results”. If 9 out of 10 studies show no significant effect of a particular managerial practice, but only the 1 out of 10 studies that shows an effect is published, then we are being systematically misled about the efficacy of that practice. And yet, in today’s publishing culture, authors and journals are much less incentivized to publish null results than significant ones.

The Code does say that it is the responsibility of “journal editors and reviewers [towards the larger goal of advancing managerial knowledge] to exercise the privilege of their positions in a confidential, unbiased, prompt, constructive, and sensitive manner.” Perhaps I’m once again grasping at straws, but it is possible to construe “unbiased” as requiring us to publish valid but insignificant findings, i.e., studies that show no effect where one was hypothesized.

This becomes a personal ethical concern for individual scholars when they don’t publish results that call their own favoured theory into question, always, of course, citing the unwillingness of journals to publish null results. But whether it’s the authors or the editors that are to blame, the overall effect is that the truth remains hidden. So, in a sense, it is a species of dishonesty.

For that reason alone, I hope this melancholy of mine soon passes and that I once again start doing the responsible thing, namely, putting my ideas out there for all to see.

Student abuse by faculty

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, lately, which in part accounts for my relative silence over the past few weeks. However, in the course of traveling, I keep coming across a set of similar stories, from throughout the world, although principally from developing countries, in particular, China and those in Africa.

The stories tend to be similar, in terms of exploitation of doctoral or junior faculty members, and go like this:

“At our university, the senior faculty insist that their names go first on every paper I produce, even those that they have not contributed to, in any way”.

Or,

“At our university, doctoral students do all the data collection analysis, and writing, but our names are never put on the paper – only that of the senior faculty”.

When I hear these stories, as both a scholar and an editor, I am outraged.  How is it that faculty members can openly exploit students and junior scholars is such a blatant fashion?  Why is it that no professional organization exists to come to their defense? Unfortunately, we are collectively partially responsible, as the publish or perish norms and intense competition that we have helped develop only exacerbates this problem.  It is, after all, a collective problem.

Of course, the exploitation of students is not entirely new. The recent movie “the Stanford Prison Experiment” shows the extent to which Lombardo went during his study, and the expense those participants must have paid.  Zimbardo, then an ambitious recently tenured scholar, was a consultant on the film, and it reportedly accurately reflects what took place. His subsequent work was devoted to more pristine socially progressive causes, such as understanding shyness. No surprise there…

Our code of ethics does address these issues, although not as directly as one might think. For example, on the aspiration side, with regard to integrity:

  1. 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.

Regarding specifically students:

  1. To our students. Relationships with students require respect, fairness, and caring, along with commitment to our subject matter and to teaching excellence. We accomplish these aims by:

Showing respect for students. It is the duty of AOM members who are educators to show appropriate

respect for students’ feelings, interests, needs, contributions, intellectual freedom, and rights to

privacy.  Maintaining objectivity and fairness. It is the duty of AOM members who are educators to treat  students equitably. Impartiality, objectivity, and fairness are required in all dealings with students.

1.6. Exploitative Relationships: AOM members do not exploit persons over whom they have evaluative or other authority, such as authors, job seekers, or student members.

And finally,

4.2.2. Authorship Credit

4.2.2.1. AOM members ensure that authorship and other publication credits are based on the scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved.

4.2.2.2. AOM members take responsibility and credit, including authorship credit, only for work they

have actually performed or to which they have contributed.

4.2.2.3. AOM members usually list a student as principal author on multiply authored publications that  substantially derive from the student s dissertation or thesis.

I underlined the word “usually” under 4.2.2.3. I assume that the exception referred to are situations where the student would not be listed as principal author, but would be listed as co-author (although what these would be, and why they would be exceptions, is a bit of a mystery to me). However, it appears that from the perspective of some of our international members, this ‘exception’ may leave open the interpretation that a scholar may occasionally NOT cite a student as co-author, even when they are  a principal author. Further, and unfortunately, there is no mention of adding authorship to work where the scholar did NOT make a contribution (although 4.2.2.1 does seem to imply that such a deed would not be welcome).

So, what can we do collectively to eradicate this practice of exploitive advising? How can we get the message across different cultures and institutions that when an author submits a paper, the assumption by the editor – indeed, the social contract – ensures that an appropriate amount of work has been conducted by that author reflecting the order of authorship? Further, perhaps it is time our code of ethics become a bit more specific regarding some of these practices, in order to make it explicitly clear that exploitation of any sort is unwelcome in our profession.

Trust

This blog is committed to facilitating a conversation about ethics among the members of the Academy of Management. There are two reasons for this. First, the topic demands it. It is not enough for a professional organization to have a code of ethics, nor even for that code to be rigorously enforced. In order to have a positive effect, ethics must be the subject of an ongoing conversation among the practitioners that work in the relevant communities. There’s no straightforwardly “right and wrong” way of doing a particular thing. We become “better people” by talking about what we do and how we do it, and the consequences of our actions on other people.

Second, it is my firm belief that blogs are best engaged with as conversations, even if only as conversations “overheard”. When I write a blog post, I’m not really pretending to be an “author”. It is certainly not my intention to “lecture”. Your role, as a reader, is not simply to try to understand and then believe what I tell you. Rather, implicitly at the end of the post, there is the question, What do you think? Often (since this is a blog about ethical behavior), What would you do?

So I’ve been thrilled to talk to an anonymous reader in the comments to my post from a couple of weeks ago. Focusing mainly on publication ethics, Anon123 began by saying that he* was “deeply skeptical of any attempts to teach ethics other than by our everyday conduct and, perhaps more importantly, the conduct of the leaders of our field.” I share his worry but am, perhaps, a bit more optimistic. I think that, if the conversation about ethics is being had throughout the many forums of the Academy, our leaders will have both better conditions and better opportunities to set a good example. Perhaps they’ll even find their efforts rewarded in journal and business school rankings. But, for the past 20 years or so, it is true that we have taken ethics somewhat for granted, assuming that people are generally well-intentioned and that errors are generally honest. This has perhaps made us less vigilant than we should be–even, I often emphasize, as regards catching those honest mistakes.

The result, as Anon123 points out, can sometimes be a bit dispiriting:

I have been in the field a fairly long time but I find myself unwilling to believe much of what is published in our journals anymore. The work on the Chrysalis Effect, researcher degrees of freedom, p-hacking and HARKing makes it clear that a substantial proportion of our collective scholarship cannot be trusted, but it is impossible to know precisely what to trust and what not to trust.

These are all issues that concern me too. I’d highly recommend Andrew Gelman’s blog for anyone who is interested in a technical discussion of the many ways in which statistics can be misused, out of either malice or ignorance. (See this post, for example, about how what is sometimes called p-hacking often actually results from perfectly sincere statistical naivety.) Of course, it hardly matters whether people are cheating or just careless (and we do, of course, have an ethical obligation to be careful) if the result is that the published literature becomes an unreliable source of knowledge. And that’s exactly what Anon123 suggests, in very strong terms:

If you told me that 5% or 10% of my favorite cereal brand is infested with worms but that I can only tell that after I have purchased the cereal (or have tried to eat it) I can guarantee you that I would no longer purchase that cereal. Similarly, I feel disinclined to continue to “purchase” many of the paper published in journals like AMJ or JOM – or recommend them to others.

That is, he would not simply buy the cereal with greater caution–testing it for worms, for example, before eating it. Rather, he’d simply stop buying it. This reminds me that I once discovered a shelf-full of hot wings in the local supermarket that were a month over their best-before date. The store clerk I pointed it out to didn’t really seem interested. He didn’t hurry over to check out the problem (even to make sure that my absurd claim was indeed mistaken), but sort of sauntered on with his day. I guess he’d “get to them” when he was ready. Needless to say, I’ve had a hard time buying anything there ever since. Certainly, I confined my purchases on that day to a few imperishables.

Notice that it wasn’t just the extremely out-of-date hot wings that turned me off the store. It was the conversation about it (or lack thereof) that ensued that undermined my trust. Likewise, knowing that 60% of the results of psychological studies can’t be replicated does not mean (though I am sometimes tempted to let it) that we shouldn’t ever take psychology seriously. It is how the psychological sciences deal with this new knowledge that is important. If we get the sense that they are sweeping it under the rug, or simply not really bothered by it, then it will indeed affect how seriously we can take them.

The recent correction of an ASQ paper about CEO narcissism, has given me some hope that the system is improving. Here’s how Jerry Davis described the exemplary process to Retraction Watch:

A concerned reader notified me of the issues with a published table in this paper a few weeks ago, and also contacted the authors.  The authors came forward with a correction, which we promptly published.  We did not consider this sufficient for a full  retraction.  The concerned reader reports that he/she is satisfied with the corrigendum.  The journal is always looking for ways to enhance the quality of the review process, and if errors end up in print, we aim to correct them promptly.

To me, the key here is that the “concerned reader … is satisfied with the corrigendum”. It is all about feeling that when you share your concerns they are taken seriously. That’s the sort of leadership that is likely to rebuild the trust we need in the management literature. Hopefully, over time, even Anon123 can be brought around.

 

_________

* I had to think about this pronoun for awhile, and I’m sorry if I got it wrong. It is of course possible to get it wrong even when a name (like Jesse or Shawn) is given. In this case, I’ve gone with my intuition based on the style of the comment, its “voice, if you will. If my “ear” has misled me I hope it will cause as little offence as the time I assumed an Italian commenter named Gabriele was a woman.