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.