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.

2 thoughts on “Trust”

  1. I welcome this discussion and any improvements in ethics education and ethics training that might arise out of it but I hope that you will allow me to express myself in plain language for a minute. Our primary ethical principles relating to research and publishing are pretty clear and easy to understand: 1) authors should not fabricate or misrepresent data or results and 2) editors need to correct the record when errors are identified. Anyone claiming ignorance about these principles was simply not paying attention in kindergarten. Adherence to these core “ethics in research and publishing” principles is simply not happening in too many cases and some people in our discipline need to face serious consequences.

    Those of us working in business schools at public universities are in an extraordinarily privileged position. We are very generously remunerated from public coffers (relative to our colleagues in many other disciplines on campus) and given immense autonomy in how we do our job. In return, we should at least conduct ourselves with a high level of integrity but a small minority of us appear to be reluctant to adhere to even the most obvious of ethical principles.

    I invite readers to peruse some of the entries for recent papers in our discipline as posted on pubpeer.com.
    https://pubpeer.com/journals/Journal-of-Management
    https://pubpeer.com/journals/Personnel-Psychology
    https://pubpeer.com/journals/Academy-of-Management-Journal
    https://pubpeer.com/journals/Journal-of-Applied-Psychology

    Many of these errors are undoubtedly innocent and some of these papers have been retracted or corrected but I am generally embarrassed for my discipline that these (often very serious) errors not only made their way through the review process but often continue to go uncorrected (authors of papers that are discussed on pubpeer are informed of the discussion via e-mail). Even worse is that the comments for some of these papers indicate that some editors are fully aware of the problems in the papers but have decided to do nothing despite proclaiming their journal’s membership in COPE. Are we so loathe to admit errors or offend our colleagues that we hamstring the self-correcting mechanism of the scientific process? A part of me suspects that the entries on pubpeer.com only scratch the surface of a potentially much bigger problem in management. Most of us do our best to act ethically but heaven help our field if some investigative journalist starts filing FOIA requests for the data described in some of these problematic articles. We will all look like idiots for having not acted and state legislatures may start asking some very uncomfortable questions.

  2. 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”.
    For this reason, if no other, we should be quite vigilant about our own ethical activities. Students learn by observation – far more than in reading our code, or any other set of rules. In my next blog, I once again point out that there are systematic rule driven ethical violations occurring with regularity in our profession. My worry is that if we don’t stop misbehaving, as a profession, we will only encourage the worst ethical reactions. It hurts us all.

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