What are we professors to do? Are we better than VW?

As members of the Academy, we each hold responsibility in upholding our professional ethics. Once the ‘egg is broken’, it will be very hard to re-establish public confidence. VW, for instance, will undoubtedly have a long road in convincing the public that their organization acts in an ethically responsible way. While the public seemed to quickly forgive GM for their ignoring a faulty ignition problem, they are less willing to forgive systemic premeditated corruption. We have seen the flashback from the American Psychological Association regarding members advising how best to conduct torture having an impact on their community. In short, many of these professional ethical issues have a way of impacting our field for the long run.

In the last posting, Greg Stephens AOM’s ombudsperson outlined a range of issues they examine, with instructions regarding how to proceed should you have a professional ethics dilemma. They do a fantastic job, often behind the scenes, and we should be very appreciative of their hard work.

Of course, these issues are primarily only of relevance to things that happen in and around the Academy of Management. If you observe something at another conference, or at a non-AOM sponsored journal, well, there may be few if any options for you to pursue.

An AOM recent censure ruling, the first I ever recall seeing, included sanctioning an academy member. A member had submitted a previously published paper for consideration at the upcoming Annual Meeting. The ruling was as follows:

The final sanctions include disqualification from participation in Academy of Management activities (including but not limited to submission to the conference, participation on the conference program, serving the Academy or any of its Divisions or Interest Groups in an elected or appointed role, or submission to any of the Academy of Management journals) for a period of three (3) years, public notice of the violation through publication in the AcadeMY News; formal notification to the journal where the work was previously published, and ethics counseling by the Ombuds Committee.

Seeing a public and formal sanction is a good professional start, and I applaud our organization for taking the trouble to demonstrate that we have professional limits that should be honored. However, what if the member were found to have done the same thing at, say, EGOS, or BAM? Of what about someone who submits a paper simultaneously to two different journals for review? Would the consequences be the same? Likely not.

It would seem to me that we would all benefit from a larger professional ‘tent’ whereby public notice of violations and censure were more systematically discussed. I find it very odd that, out of 20,000 members, it is so rare for us to have a public censure (this is the first I am aware of – although there may have been other non-public consequences). Every year I hear of multiple cases of doctors and lawyers getting disbarred.  The odds are presumably the same for our profession, but the consequences far less, and the frequency of public humiliation quite rare. This would only provide incentives to engage in unprofessional conduct.  I am not suggesting we begin a yellow journalistic finger-pointing exercise. Only that given the rise in competition, and the important stakes involved in our profession, we should collectively think about professional monitoring, public dialog, and the provision of clear ethical guidelines in our doctoral and professional career development.

Your thoughts on the matter are welcome.

7 thoughts on “What are we professors to do? Are we better than VW?”

  1. “Public humiliation” is in my view indeed an apt description of the sanction imposed by the EAC. Public humiliation is a rare sanction in our profession, as you say. Retractionwatch.com is the first other type of public humiliation I can think of. This sanction of public humiliation does raise the question, I feel, of how this squares with earlier posts on the Ethicist blog about attempting to settle ethics violations, or presumed ethics violations, privately with the presumed perpetrator. The submitted paper could also have been rejected with a stern letter from the Academy (and perhaps also disqualification from participation in Academy of Management activities for three years), followed by a public message about this practice without naming any individual. Which violations call for a public humiliation, and which violations call for private action? I am not sure where to draw the line.

  2. Good question, Erik. One problem with retraction watch is they are not systematic – they are just a couple of people making decisions about what they will publicize, and how they will ‘out’ whom. In this particular case – it seems due process was followed. There was a committee. There was an appeals process. Everyone had a chance to voice their concerns, and uncover any errors. At the end of the day – shouldn’t some sort of behavior – at some extreme – become public? I think our previous history is that too much was swept under the rug. My guess is this has happened 100’s and even 1000’s of times – and making a public issue after a careful examination sets some sort of standard. But, I agree, if all we do is point fingers, we are not doing enough to solve the problem. How would you suggest we reduce deviant behavior in the Academy, Erik?

  3. From time to time I read a comment or two here or there about how bad things are in Texas. Here’s a link to more than a dozen disciplinary actions imposed by the Texas Board of Professional Engineers in just the last quarter of the year: http://engineers.texas.gov/da/da2112016.html

    Maybe there are more bad engineers in Texas than there are bad scholars in AOM? But maybe my fellow engineers are more serious about doing something about it?

    Today is Texas Independence Day. Celebrate with me. Here’s something we get right.

  4. Andrew, thanks for your comment. Writers undoubtedly have different sets of objectives. You raise a very important issues here. I don’t have the statistical confidence or expertise that you have to call out my own observations publicly, instead, I use the peer review process, as bad as it is, to point them out (and I fully expect to continue with some very interesting stuff in the near future) – please stay tuned….

    Unfortunately, like many of us, I have been abused and played the fool, but tenacity can be a very useful tool. Nobody seems to care much when I start yelling so I just persist at finding avenues to make my points.

    I’m a big fan of due process – and when it has been done correctly (as in the case of Andreas Hinterhuber, who submitted and presented a previously published paper at an academic conference as ‘new’) I’m all for pointing my finger there, or at recognized retractions, or errors that I can prove with my own data analyses and manage to get published (a huge battle, I’ve found, but someone needs to be willing to fight it).

    I’m a bit concerned about some of the more public scandal type venues becoming something akin to yellow journalism (here, I am NOT referring to your very influential blog). Like you, I worry more about all those that have been getting away with scientific ‘murder’ and are continuing to push honest people into the margins. However, my ambition and role in this blog is to educate, debate, and enlighten, and while I have no where near your level of influence, I aim to be more of a candle lighter than a flamethrower, but I think we’re on the same team.

  5. For the record, I am not Andrew Gelman (your reference to a blog indicates that you may think I am).

  6. Sorry about that – but in any case, the comment still applies. We have to create a dialog, and move beyond simply outing people. I’m mostly worried about the small compromises, that all add up to major collective misunderstandings in our field. There are many!

  7. I think you guys have an advantage, John. If you ‘screw up’, bridges or buildings fall down, and people die. Our problem in management is partly one of accountability. What are the consequences of a ‘faulty’ article being published? How many CEO’s will act on our ‘bad’ advice? Perhaps, probably, none.
    So, we are operating in our own little bubble, oblivious to consequences. As with medicine, and law, your field is more fortunate in that the consequences may be visible to all.

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