Should We Prepare for a Reckoning?

(Hat tip to Adam Kotsko’s tweet, which also gave me the theological spin, and my title.)

Over at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies has a thought-provoking post about looming scandals in academia, analogous to the scandals in government, journalism, and finance we’ve already witnessed. Interestingly, he closes the post with some straight talk about how we can protect ourselves from being implicated in such scandals when they (if he’s right) inevitably begin to roll. “[P]ractice decent email hygiene … and avoid the creation of a paper trail,” he says; “anyone sensible will do anything they’re ashamed of in person or over the telephone.” That’s some stark advice where most of us would be inclined to think (or at least pretend to think) that it was possible to just not do something you’re likely to be ashamed of. To my ears, it’s a refreshing way of putting it.

He sets it up with a much more, shall we say, “ethical” position, namely, that the reason you want to keep your name out of a searchable email correspondence about some doubtful practice is that the excuse you’re probably using to convince yourself to do what you know you shouldn’t probably isn’t going to cut it in the light of day.

The characteristic defence is that “in the system as it is designed, we are forced to take these measures”. Often because “everyone works the system, so if we don’t do so ourselves, then …” … well, then what? Then we will slip down the rankings. Then other people will get our grants and funding and students. After having spent a couple of years of my life covering the financial sector scandals, I can report back and tell you that “If I did what I know to be the right thing, then I would have got less money and prestige than if I did what I know to be the wrong thing, so I did something I knew to be wrong” is not generally regarded as a brilliant excuse.

This is an important point. Ethical behaviour costs something, often it terms of passing up opportunities for accelerated advancement. We might say that these are “short term” losses that pay off in the long run, but we might have to invoke an almost religious sense of “the long run” to make that argument truly plausible. There are no doubt many academics who take their ethical transgressions with them through a long career, first to the bank, and then to the grave. The “cost” you’re really avoiding is the risk of getting caught, and the worry that goes with it.

What Davies is trying to do is to get you to feel that risk a little more acutely. He wants you to worry a little more about the long-term risk of exposure, so that you might do something that exposes you to the short-term discomfort of a colleague’s, or even university president’s, disapproval. As he says in relation to that question of keeping your email clean, it might not be a bad thing one day if “it’s your name in the records attached to the lone voice of complaint saying ‘we shouldn’t do this, vice-Chancellor’.” A day of reckoning is coming!

Are generous salaries impacting our professional ethics? How should we ‘give back’?

It strikes me that a significant portion of the ethical concerns emanating from the academy are the result of activities involving reputation that directly impact  our own professorial pocketbooks. In an Op Ed piece in the NY Times, Frank Bruni points out that stellar salaries are not unique to Wall street, but have permeated the University environment.  University presidents commonly receive seven figure salaries, as do University sports directors and certain academic ‘superstars’.

When I consider some of the lengths colleagues go to in order to achieve yet another star publication (sometimes, unfortunately, crossing the ethical boundary lines), I can’t help but think remuneration is somewhere in back of their mind as a motivating force. I have met colleagues who evaluate each other directly according to the lines on their respective CV’s. And yet, there is no Nobel prize for management scholarship, and short of airport book notoriety (and perhaps the associated financial residuals), few of us are likely to attain the top .05% of wealth. Yet, we routinely make decisions, good and bad, as though each article provides yet another stream of income, another opportunity to leverage speaking engagements, research grants, and bolster our small army of hard working graduate students. Are we simply the sum total of our A* publications? Is that all that ‘matters’ to us?

At some point, I suspect our collective failure to acknowledge responsibilities beyond our own financial concerns are driving us ever further from science, from making important social contributions, and from advancing management as a field. When we make professional decisions based on how it affects our own financial situation, we are assuming that we are engaged in a zero sum game, perhaps one with winner take all, in the sense that only the most recognized bring home those super salaries Bruni complains about.

In some preliminary research I conducted with a colleague, we longitudinally analyzed professorial salaries in management. Changing institutions was one of the largest factors impacting salary raises. Regrettably, citation impacts were of little insight in the models (but numbers of publications were). So the message is clear – focus on ‘number one’, at the expense of institutions, play the numbers game of quantity over quality, and one’s salary will appreciate faster than the stock market.

Of course, none of this addresses some very important roles that we, as professional scholars and academics, are meant to oversee. Mentorship, community contributions, field contributions, institution building – these do no typically generate the salary enhancements that drive some of us so mercilessly.

So, here is a professional challenge. What if each of us pledged to dedicate a portion of our time – let’s say 10% – toward community betterment that would NOT appear on our CV? How would this impact our professional field? Would this help move us toward a more balanced role of individual performance and social welfare? Might it lead us toward a heightened ethical view of our roles that might reduce some of the tensions that have resulted in various ethical compromises? Am I just dreaming – or could some sort of ‘gold’ standard of professorial behavior become established in our profession?





Whistle-blowing, Criticism and Harassment

What is the difference between whisteblowing and criticism? As a first approximation, let’s say that whistle-blowing exposes misbehavior, i.e., brings it out into the light, while criticism merely indicates misbehavior, i.e., points at it. In order for whistle-blowing to make sense, the misbehavior has to be concealed, carried out behind closed doors. No one had to blow the whistle on Brutus when he killed Julius Caesar in the Capitol. Mark Antony did, however, feel compelled to criticize the act. (Of course, if he had gotten wind of the conspiracy in advance, he’d have been in a position to blow the whistle on it.) This is an important distinction to make in the case of plagiarism, where the act is usually, once committed, out there in the open for anyone to see. It does not, at least initially, require a whistle-blowing institution to address plagiarism, it just requires an institutionalized place of scholarly criticism. You point at one published text and then you point at another. That’s really all it should take.

But sometimes scholars who are accused of plagiarism cast themselves as the victims of a kind of harassment, a “witch hunt”. It is regrettable that they sometimes do this before addressing the question of whether or not they did in fact commit plagiarism, and it’s certainly regrettable in cases where the charge is entirely justified, but it’s important to recognize that it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which they are in fact be victimized. They may have acknowledged the error (or successfully defended themselves against the charge) and yet still face unrelenting criticism and ridicule. Such criticism, again, if carried out in public would not require whistle-blowing (just critical pushback), but if carried out in private, and even in secret (behind the wrongly accused’s back), might well require some means of exposure.

It works the other way, too. Suppose our PhD student decided to go directly to the plagiarist with her concerns, and suppose the plagiarist had now embarked on a campaign of intimidation and harassment. The plagiarist may threaten to ruin the student’s career, or to sue, or something on that order. (This really does happen, and is one reason I don’t recommend the direct approach.) Obviously, what the plagiarist would be hoping to gain from this is the accuser’s silence, so such a campaign would necessarily be carried out behind the scenes. To stop it someone would have to blow the whistle on it. The question I asked last week, building on Benson’s post, was how a whistle-blowing organization could have helped.

Well, let’s suppose she contacted the organization and they decided to take her case. The emails she had received may have been clear evidence of threatening behavior. The problem is: how would the organization proceed without simply making the whole thing public and therefore essentially testing the power the plagiarist claims to have to do the damage he is threatening to do. After all, there will be no question about the source of the “leak” in this case. The organization has to offer some meaningful kind of “protection”–some assurance, at least, that justice will be done and everyone will know the truth.

This is where I would suggest using the disciplinary boundaries of academic fields as a way of enforcing general academic norms, like those against plagiarism. If the PhD student feels harassed, she should be able to go someone outside her own disciplinary community, someone who will bring the facts to light. And now we come to the point: if that’s the right way to deal with harassment, perhaps it’s the right thing to do in the first place. Perhaps, in the case of plagiarism, we should never expect people within a field to make the argument and “raise the stink” as it were. We should, rather, establish a broader academic culture in which, when one finds a case of plagiarism, one quietly leaks it to someone who has no specific interest in the individuals involved. They will then, merely “on principle”, bring it to the attention of the larger community.

It is possible that one should have some sort formalized online “clearing house” for this kind of charge (plagiarism, data-fabrication, etc.) Something like Wiki-Leaks, perhaps, that would allow the discoverer of the misconduct to maintain perfect anonymity. But I haven’t thought it that far through yet.

Moderation and Critique

“What would an effective whistle-blowing site for scholarly work look like,” asks Benson in Friday’s post, “and how might it be developed?” I think that’s a great question, precisely because it has no easy answers. Consider Retraction Watch, which informs Benson’s thinking here. In many ways, this is precisely the sort of site he’s looking for. But notice what they say in the FAQ/comment policy:

we have recently found ourselves — this update is from January 2013 — having to edit ad hominem attacks out of comments, unapprove other comments, and contact some commenters to remind them of what’s appropriate.

It may not be clear to those who feel the need to resort to such personal attacks that they destroy the discourse that we and others have worked so hard to build on Retraction Watch, but it is abundantly clear to us and many others. The same goes for unfounded allegations and unverified facts.

That is, it is absolutely essential that a whistle-blowing site be “moderated”. There must be some sort of filter on the allegations. A public notice board for accusations of academic misconduct is not a solution to our problems. We do not simply need better means to circulate anonymous rumors. (I’m not saying that this is what Benson has called for, of course; my point is just that it’s not that such allegations really lack an “outlet”; they lack, perhaps, an effective one.) One day, this blog, too, may need to guard against becoming an unfiltered channel for accusations in the comments field. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.

By extension, a whistle-blowing organization will necessarily always be a moderate one. It must be discerning in the cases it pursues and promotes publicly, just like our own ombudsman (who is also essentially a whistle-blower institution). It’s credibility, and therefore it’s effectiveness depends on it. It must avoid “false positives” and it must therefore risk letting a few fish get through the net. And once we realize this, we have to ask ourselves whether we don’t already have whistle-blowing organizations in academia. Aren’t there plenty of institutions that help academics, when they need it, to bring the truth of a colleague’s misconduct to light? It’s just that we don’t make use of them (or not enough). So in order to answer Benson’s questions we really have to understand it as asking, “How can we improve the institutions of scholarship to make it easier to expose misconduct?”

As I said in my comment to Benson’s post, I think there’s some low-hanging fruit to pick before we climb up the tree towards whistle-blowing. Before we find new ways of exposing hidden misconduct, i.e., outright deception and fraud, we need to learn how to point out ordinary errors of scholarship in each other’s work as a part of the regular routine. Politicians, for example, openly criticize each other in public, and then there’s the occasional scandal occasioned by whistle-blowing. I sometimes get the feeling that we’re less critical in social science–too polite, if you will. We aren’t comfortable enough correcting each other’s published mistakes. How, then, can we expect each other to deal effectively with each other’s private vices?

There is a great deal of error in science that is out there in plain view. One of them, it should be noted, is plagiarism–part of the public record. After all, in the classic case of plagiarism, both the source text and the plagiary are published. All we have to do is put them side by side and compare them. And that, of course, brings us back to the case of the PhD student I’m working on. So let me conclude this post by asking a question for the next one: How would an effective whistle-blowing site or organization have helped her deal with her problem? Let’s think this through concretely.

Whistleblowing for the Academy?

Do we need a whistleblowing system for scholars?

A recent video shows a policeman dropping a stun gun next to a citizen in the hopes of providing a false alibi. The governor of New Jersey is accused of creating traffic jams to punish a critic. A scientist retracts a paper due to fabricated data. Is it any wonder that public confidence in the accuracy of professional activities has been undermined? As professionals in the public eye, we, too, are subject to increasingly strident challenges regarding both our activities and our conclusions. Our output, our scholarly work, can be manipulated and distorted in fraudulent ways, although it’s not typically observable through the lens of a cell phone. For this reason, whistleblowing systems have been implemented in a number of professional jurisdictions.

Scholarly fraud includes both small and big acts – small ones, such as conveniently “adjusting” significance statistics, or failing to properly acknowledge authorship, as well as big ones, such as outright data fabrication and ghostwriting. The recent movie “big eyes’ reminded me that, in many cases, there are multiple parties at work contributing to scholarly fraud, both big and small. The movie tells the true story of a global fraud whereby the artist of those ubiquitous paintings of children with big eyes, so popular in the 70’s, was coerced into giving artistic credit to her husband, the penultimate salesman and showman.

Similar Unequal Power relations exist in our own academic environment, between advisors and advisees, between editors and authors, and between scholars with extensive reputations, and those just getting started. As in the movie “big eyes”, those relationships harbor significant opportunities for abuse, both subtle and manifest. Diederik Staple, the acknowledged data fabricator from the Netherlands, provided both the data and the analysis to a number of his doctoral students. While some of us might wonder how it is possible for a student to complete a PhD using their advisor’s data and analysis, we should remember that the power relations are such that mentees may be hesitant to question or feel trapped in their relationship, much like the big eyes artist Margaret Keen. However, as with Margaret, frequently both parties are participating in the fraud, and both have a vested interest in ensuring its continued success.

Our own AOM code of ethics makes it clear that fraud is unacceptable, and presumably extraordinary examples represent situations where the authors are clearly aware of the extent of their misrepresentations. This brings us to an important question:

What makes scholars commit fraud and how can we reduce these practices?

Clearly, the highly competitive nature of our environment increases the stakes. Careers are made and broken with publications. In the movie, big eyes, her husband seems to fall into asserting creative credit almost accidentally – with one small lie leading to a series of increasingly outrageous assertions. Reading the story of Staple, one gets a similar impression of a few small acts leading up to a systematic norm. Diederik rationalized his work by thinking ‘why spend the time collecting data when we know the outcome anyway’? All this would suggest that our goal as academicians should be not only to focus on the major examples of outrageous fabrications, but also to pay attention to the smaller events that may, in cases, lead down the road of scholarly fraud. While peer review is helpful in identifying some of the more extensive instances of fraud, it may fail to uncover the smaller incidents that lead up to patterns of behavior that we may be unknowingly rewarding. How can we manage these small events, effectively nipping ethical failure in the bud?

Education is certainly one important point of contact, but I would venture to guess that the policemen who dropped the stun gun was well educated in the correct laws and procedures of civilized law enforcement.

At AOM, we do our best to disseminate our code of ethics, and promote ethical conduct through our ethical seminars as well as blogs such as this.
However, as professionals, we continue to rely on self monitoring for the bulk of our ethical compliance. We have no systematic procedures in place to evaluate issues of ethical concern. While we do have the role of ombudsman at the Academy, the role is not designed to systematically ensure our ethical compliance. For that, we rely primarily on our own good intentions. However, unlike the community of law enforcers, who might be incentivized to keep a wall of silence, and so must also face outside inquiry boards of conduct, we, as academicians, have no systematic outside recourse. A recent blog posting by John R Thomas Jr. in retraction watch demonstrates the difficulties in applying a legal framework to false scholarship, and the implications of whistleblowing, an increasingly common practice. Thomas sums up a successful strategy for a false claims act proceeding as follows:

…“a viable FCA case involving scientific or research misconduct will involve objectively false information in a grant application or progress report. Someone at the institution must “know” that the information is false, which means that they actually know that it is false or are willfully blind or recklessly indifferent to the veracity of the statement. Finally, the false information must have the tendency or capacity to influence a grant decision.”

Currently, an offended and pressured doctoral student or junior colleague can only resort to the civil courts, a very expensive and largely unsuitable instrument for evaluating academic conduct.

How might a more progressive and responsive system operate? What could be done, professionally, both within and outside the Academy to both process and facilitate more transparent integrity? My hats go off to the writes of transparency watch. Their site is now supported by a US federal grant. Unfortunately, their portal fails to facilitate the small issues, the personal disagreements, and the power imbalances that exist in academic life. Presenting such material includes considerable legal liabilities that few professional institutions are willing or able to endure. But whistleblowing sites of all sorts are increasingly available .

To sum up,
We see whistleblowing systems in the corporate world and in public positions of influence including police, government,, tax and regulatory environments. What would an effective whistleblowing site for scholarly work look like, and how might it be developed? Who might be willing to sponsor such a site, and how effective might it be? Would AACSB be a possible sponsor? Grant agencies such as the NSF?

Collective Responsibilities

While plagiarism is often described as a kind of theft, it might be better to think of it as a kind of deceit. It is a form of lying. The plagiarist says “Here’s how I would put it,” or “Here’s what I’ve discovered,” or “Here’s my reading of Adam Smith,” but is really using someone else’s words to say it or expressing someone else’s ideas. It’s not so much like stealing someone’s car as pointing to it and claiming it is yours in order to impress a date. The owner is often less harmed by this than your date. Similarly, in scholarship, it is your reader that is misled by plagiarism not (so much) the author that suffers a loss.

Now, people who behave unethically are, of course, not likely to face charges of unethical behavior in the most ethical manner either. So, if plagiarism is a kind of lying, then we will not expect the plagiarist to immediately come clean when confronted with the facts. Often, the plagiarist will try to complicate matters, to make it a matter of interpretation. (“I never said that was my car. I only allowed you to believe it was.”) In a word, we will expect the plagiarist to lie in order to cover up the original lie. This is pretty common in high profile plagiarism cases, and no one really thinks much of it. But it is important to keep in mind when trying to bring a case of plagiarism to light, especially from a position of less power than the plagiarist. And such, of course, is the case of the imagined PhD student that I’ve been discussing lately.

What she needs to do is to set up a situation in which she can insist on her claim of plagiarism over a significant period. We must never assume that an ethical situation can be resolved simply by pointing to the violation and demanding that it be dealt with. So her first task is to locate someone within her community that she can trust to add weight to her charges, and who is able to carry the process to a satisfactory resolution.

One strategy here is to find someone with as much academic credibility as the plagiarist, but who is not professionally involved with him. Sometimes such “sponsors” can be found in adjacent fields or even nearby sub-disciplines, but there are also cases where a PhD student in the social sciences has found support in the natural sciences to press forward. I think those who provide such support deserve our praise. While they often don’t have much to lose, they do need to invest their time and resources in holding the plagiarist to account. They need to get involved in what is likely to be an uncomfortable and embarrassing confrontation. They may even have to endure a bit of mudslinging, though the mud will, if the battle is well-chosen, be more like the proverbial water off a duck’s back.

In fact, finding a sponsor like this is what I would recommend as the primary responsibility of the PhD student. The evidence should be handed off to someone who is willing and able to press the case towards a resolution, against the predictable resistance he or she will face. The PhD student has better things to do.

An ethical research community depends on the existence of such potential sponsors. It is preferable that such people exist within every discipline (meaning that disciplines should be organized with the requisite variety of social relationships not implicate everyone directly in everyone else’s work), but it may be possible to rely only a broader academic community in which the actual disinterestedness of researchers, across widely disparate fields, makes people available that our PhD student could go to with the issue. If there is really no one to turn to, then that does not bode well for the ethical culture of the discipline in question.

It is this sort of reflection, in my opinion, that is required when a young scholar comes to a more experienced one for guidance after having discovered a case of plagiarism. If you don’t feel you can take on the case yourself, you should help find someone who can. It will not do to advise the PhD student to pretend nothing is wrong. We have a collective responsibility to hold people to account for their ethical transgressions.