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.