In case you were wondering… we did not write that post about casinos! We were hacked! We are trying to diagnose the problem so hopefully you will not see any more oddball posts.
Voice and academia – when do we speak out?
In his classic work, Hirschman (1970) refers to ‘exit, voice and loyalty”, noting that the easier it is to leave an environment of discontent, the lower the voice. Voice, however, is more helpful, in that it explains decline. Of course, exit from AOM is a rather simple task, we do not have a monopoly on scholarly conferences or journals in management. Yet, recently, there was active and serious discussion including members mentioning leaving, boycotting, and resigning their AOM membership.
On Jan.27, President Donald Trump issued the now familiar executive order restricting and/or banning anyone from 7 different countries from visiting the USA. What followed, in addition to the subsequent court order cancelling this directive, was a stream of protests from various organizations, including Academic organizations, such as the APA, ASA, etc.. I have listed many of these responses at the end of this blog for your reference. In most cases, the language is explicit: restricting travel to individuals according to their national origin went against the values of many of these organizations, and their objection was unambiguous.
The ruling also challenged our own Code of Ethics at AOM:
The AOM ensures that attention is paid to the rights and well-being of all organizational stakeholders.
AOM members respect and protect civil and human rights and the central importance of freedom of inquiry and expression in research, teaching, and publication.
Worldview. Academy members have a duty to consider their responsibilities to the world community.
In their role as educators, members of the Academy can play a vital role in encouraging a broader horizon for decision making by viewing issues from a multiplicity of perspectives, including the perspectives of those who are the least advantaged.
Our own president, Anita M. McGahan, weighed in, but unfortunately, her letter lacked the robust character of many of the academies listed below. Rather, she attempted a ‘work around”, and I quote a few paragraphs as follows:
“First, the AOM is suspending the requirement of attendance as a condition of inclusion in the program at the Annual Meeting for those affected by the travel restrictions. All scholars whose work is accepted to the conference but are not able to enter the United States from travel-restricted countries will have access to sessions in which they are presenting through virtual means. Second, we will also share with you, via our website, the best information that we have about Visa application processes for those who want to attend. We encourage any member from the affected countries who wishes to attend but cannot because of travel restrictions to contact us so that we can work with you toward participation”
|“The vision of the AOM is to inspire and enable a better world through our scholarship and teaching about management and organizations. I encourage AOM members to double down on the scholarly agenda. Let us be more engaged, creative, and committed to scholarship and teaching on the issues of our day. Let us stand together in Atlanta in solidarity with our diverse membership as the world’s premiere association of management scholars and business-school professors. Academic integrity is our strength. Through our scholarly discussions and debate, we can find a way forward together. This is the AOM’s purpose and this cannot and will not change”.|
Many of members, including myself, wrote letters of protest to our president. We felt it important that AOM make a stand on this important issue. A healthy dialog subsequently ensued on numerous listservs. It turned out that Anita was constrained by AOM policies that would not allow AOM to take political stands.
The policy was: “The Academy of Management does not take political stands. Officers and leaders are bound by this policy and may not make publicly stated political views in the name of the AOM or through use of AOM resources.”
As a result, I was very pleased to note that AOM policy has changed – albeit subtly, our policy as follows:
The newly amended policy on political stands is: “The Academy of Management does not take political stands. Officers and leaders are bound by this policy and may not make publicly stated political views in the name of the AOM or through use of AOM resources. However, under exceptional circumstances, and with the consensual support of the Executive Committee and in consultation with the Board of Governors, the President is authorized to issue a statement on behalf of the AOM when a political action threatens the existence, purpose, or functioning of the AOM as an organization.” This policy is under embargo for 90 days.
I wish to thank Anita, the Board of Governors, our members who voiced concerns, and all the other members involved for their work in rapidly addressing this important issue head on, by acknowledging that under certain circumstances, voice is important.
While many of us are fortunately enough to live in a democracy, we also are members of a global community of scholars. We have seen what happens when communities of scholars fail to adequately rise up against measures that limit or constrain academic freedom. We need not look far to see this freedom being denied our colleagues in various places, at this very moment. There are times when making a political stand is necessary to meet challenges attacking the very substance of what we do as scholars. While these will hopefully be few and far between, it is important that we acknowledge our own responsibility for voice, least we have only to exit. If nothing else, modifying our rules has engendered more loyalty.
Statements from various associations follow:
It seems I can’t visit anywhere without hearing harrowing stories of unethical and abusive editors, reviewers, and scholars. Before starting this blog, I would hear the odd tale or two – but now I seem to be ground zero for the often shocking admissions of disgruntled and abused colleagues the world over!
While it would be nice to view these unfortunate confessions as a biased sample, I am beginning to believe that the entire profession harbors within each of us, numerous examples of blatantly unethical conduct, all simmering and waiting to escape as some sort of neurotic or equally unjust retribution. In short, we may be the walking wounded. All of this has to do with our culture of scholarship – we need to carefully ask ourselves, what kind of culture are we promoting, and what are our overall objectives? How can we improve the cultural landscape that we operate in?
Just a few representative examples:
A junior colleague tells me an anonymous reviewer demands a series of coercive self-citations of their own, only tangentially relevant work. They also disclose, in the review, both who they are, along with insinuations that they know exactly who the jr. scholar is. The editor forwards this review with no comment.
A senior scholar reports presenting a paper with a unique novel analysis of public data during a conference. A few months later, she observes a conference paper written by a member of the audience who had attended the talk – utilizing the exact same methods and data. There is no mention of her paper, not even an acknowledgement. Despite reminding the author of this sequence of events – by sending a copy of the proceedings as a reminder – the paper is eventually published, without a word of recognition, even though the editor is aware of the circumstances.
Dog eat dog…
Finally, we have the ‘curse’ of the special issue editors. These are often the unregulated wild west. I have heard more horror stories than I can relate in this short blog, but they range from ‘tit for tat’ expectations, to outstanding examples of favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism. Editors taking advantage of writing themselves or their friends into special issues is very common. These may represent closed networks of special subject reviewers who are primed to support primarily insider work – and reject outsider material. Social expectations trump scientific merit, and the entire effort becomes mired in politics.
While these are but a few examples, one begins to suspect that what is published is often not recognition regarding the high quality of the research, rather, it has to do with the social processes underlying how the work is presented. Rather than rewarding the highest quality work – or the most innovative work – we wind up with a kind of replication of the norm. We pat each other on the back regarding out methodological rigor, without really considering the accuracy or consequences of our efforts. No wonder managers in the ‘real world’ seldom pay attention to anything we do.
All of which suggests that we need more transparency in our publication and review process, as well as more insight into the methodological and philosophical rigour we use to approach our work. The idea of double blind is good – as long as it is truly double blind, and the objective is to enhance the quality of the subsequent product. However, all too often, we’re simply going through a well rehearsed process of convincing the editors and reviewers that our work is normative, while they go through the ritual of telling us how to frame an acceptable ‘story’ that meets their standards, irrespective of the accuracy of the work.
In a very insightful article, Bill Starbuck in the 60 year anniversary issue of ASQ points out the inconsistencies in reviewer evaluations, including the problems of submissions from ‘low status institutions’, convoluted formulas, and ambiguous editorial feedback. He also highlights the problems of signalling inherent in language usage, whereby reviewers can identify the origin of any particular manuscript’s authors.
Next, Bill tackles the issue of our efforts to enhance the importance of our work, irrespective of the actual merit, sometimes leading to corrupt methodologies, HARKing (Hypothesizing after results are known) and p-Hacking (subjecting data to multiple manipulations until some sort of pattern emerges) both of which misrepresent the accuracy of the theories discussed. Bill points out that this leads to “a cynical ethos that treats research as primarily a way to advance careers”.
Bill concludes that cultural changes are needed, but that they happen only slowly. Senior scholars must take a very visible lead – editors and reviewers alike. In the end, it’s really a matter of education.
I fully agree with Bill – we need to start looking at ourselves carefully in the mirror, stop quoting our individual H indexes, and begin the difficult task of educating ourselves regarding how to advance our scientific capabilities.
I recently read a NY times article highlighting an obvious conflict, when stock analysts own stock or options in the companies they are evaluating, or retain close ties with those companies. It’s kind of horrifying to think that what is regarded as objective, unsolicited advice, may really be individuals trying to ‘game’ the system, by pushing up the price of their options for personal gain. Of course, that’s Wall Street, we’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again. But it got me thinking – what about journal editors?
Journal editors make decisions, often with considerable career implications, but their relationships – with the persons they evaluate, or the way they make decisions – is entirely opaque. It’s not like there’s some sort of appeals board one can go to if one thinks they have been slighted by an editor who bears a grudge against an author, their university, or even the theoretical or methodological paradigm they are writing about. This opens up not only questions of abuse of power and self interest, but also of due process.
We all want to think that the blind review process is objective – but what about the reviewer selection? What about other practices? I don’t have to go far to find a litany of editor’s abusive activities. Just scratching the surface, we find the ‘tit for tat’ exchange – “ I will publish your paper in my journal, with the expectation that you will reciprocate with a publication your journal”. The special issue editor, that always seems to publish good friends and colleagues from their particular sphere of influence. Special issue editors are a particular problem, as they seem to go relatively unregulated. These practices effectively reduce the probability of a general submission being accepted, as there are few slots allocated to the genuine public of scholars. We also have coercive citations abuse, whereby the editor informs the author that they need to cite their journal (to improve the impact factor) in the editor’s R&R letter. And, of course, we have the form letter rejection, sometimes not even reflecting the contents of the paper submitted, or addressing the material in a way demonstrating that the editor actually read anything.
What I find particularly surprising is that there is virtually no recourse. Many of us have experienced egregious editorial injustice, yet we simply grin and bear it. Students, on the other hand, seem to have figured out a way to vent their frustrations is a way that might, perhaps, temper the worst of academic injustice. Sites like ‘rate my professor’ allow students to voice their anger and frustration at what they view to be unjust or unprofessional activities. While I am the first to acknowledge that the site is relatively un-monitored and subject to potential biases and abuse – at least it provides a forum.
Academy of Management journals maintain a fairly transparent editorial policy, limiting the tenure of editors, and opening up nominations to our membership. This is good practice. Why don’t ALL journals publish a code of editorial ethics? Why don’t they ALL consider grievance procedures? Where is our academic forum? Why is it that we academics, have not devised a site to discuss perceived biases, unprofessional behavior, and irresponsible editing? I know, from talking with colleagues, that most of us have experienced unprofessional and sometimes outright unethical practices. Yet, we sit silently, submitting our papers to yet another journal, hoping for a fair evaluation at another venue. Meanwhile, some editors, even those demonstrating deeply abusive practices, are professionally rewarded.
Is there something we can do? Does anyone have a suggestion? Or, are we all ‘happy campers”?
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 onbudperson, 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.
A AOM recent censure ruling, the first I ever recall seeing, included the sanctioning of an academy member. Professor Andreas Hinterhuber 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 Professor Andreas Hinterhuber 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.
“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”
In the comments to my last post, Andrew quite literally encouraged me to speak my mind. Truth be told, I’ve always been ambivalent about “intellectual courage”. Sometimes the exercise of our ethical obligations seems to require us to be courageous. But is courage itself an ethical obligation?
Courage is, of course, a virtue and it is presumably what is required of us when we “speak truth to power”. In the paradigm case, some form of social power asks us to lie or to remain silent, and when we defy this power we exercise courage. The consequences can be quite serious because, in so far as the power is real, it is also dangerous. If the powerful person or institution we are defying chooses to punish us for speaking the truth, then it has, by definition, the power to do so.
To understand my ambivalence, consider the ethical obligations that follow from being physically strong. “Ought,” they say, “implies can.” If someone is trapped under a car I have an ethical obligation to lift the car off them, but only, of course, if I have the strength to do so. Is courage a kind of “strength” in that sense?
Courage is a virtue and cowardice is a vice. But some part of our everyday moral psychology also sees them as character traits, i.e., as qualities we are either born with or develop through practice but, in any case, simply have a certain amount of at any given time. Suppose I know a “truth” that “power” would have me remain silent about. To speak it is to risk my career. Now, suppose I simply lack the courage to do it. I’m a “coward”, to be sure, but am I violating my ethics? How much courage can be demanded of my ethical behavior?
We are getting to the core of the issue I want to raise. How much courage should it take to speak the truth in an academic environment? Should it take courage to tell someone they are wrong?
On the one hand, we’d think universities would be a premier site of intellectual courage, much like the military should offer regular occasions for valour.* But let’s think this through. Suppose speaking the truth generally takes a great deal of courage. We will then rely on “heroes” to know what is going on. As students, we must assume that learning how the world works will itself require a great deal of courage, not just intelligence and diligence. Worse, the pressures that require truth-tellers to be courageous would also, of course, make cowards of the rest of us, those of us who are disinclined towards heroic acts of speaking truth to power.
In fact, what our academic institutions ought to do is to insulate inquirers from the social pressures that would require them to be courageous. Perhaps we could say an academic should never have to speak truth to power, but always to knowledge, i.e., to something that won’t hurt them, but might correct them. Don’t we want to know truths even if they are discovered by natural born cowards?
From this point of view, it is unfortunate that academics do, throughout the course of their career, amass real, if somewhat parochial, power. They have the power to exploit (and even harass and abuse) their students, for example, or the power to promote ideologies or products, sometimes for something as base as money. Finally, academics have the power to promote or obstruct their colleagues in their careers.
I want here to focus on the cases in which the abuse of power is also the distortion of truth. Sexual harassment, while certainly wrong, and often worse than intellectual dishonesty, does not directly distort our understanding of a given social phenomenon or exaggerate our confidence in a particular theory. (Because of the concomitant lying, to be sure, it does distort the reality experienced by the harassed persons and their colleagues. But this is not a fully or, if you will, a “merely” academic distortion.)
While it seems petty, and certainly unethical, there is really no question about whether academics have an incentive to punish each other for pointing out each other’s mistakes. An academic who is known for making mistakes will be less successful than one who is known for getting things right. So, if I have the power to prevent someone from pointing out my mistakes, I also, whatever else is true, have an incentive to use it. I may simply bribe the would-be truth-teller with promises of advancement, or I may threaten them with unpleasant consequences. This would be unethical.
In an ethical environment, of course, we would trust that I will not be punished for pointing out a mistake. But this will probably require that no one is ever punished for making them (removing the incentive to punish me for pointing it out). That is, I would be able even to be wrong about your mistakes, more or less without consequences. That’s a truly “utopian” situation.
The dystopian situation, however, is one in which it is very dangerous to speak what Al Gore famously called “an inconvenient truth”. Science would only be done by heroes, and, since these are rare, we would have to resign ourselves to the fact that most scientists are intellectual cowards. In my view, ethics is what ensures that only a reasonable, “ordinary” if you will, amount of courage is needed. We would, for the most part, rely on the decency of our colleagues.** And it would also ensure that science, as a social institution, wouldn’t have much need for cowards; wouldn’t encourage them, if you will.
We will, no doubt, always have to speak the truth, if we speak it at all, to some form of power. And so our knowledge will always depend to some extent on our intellectual courage. We can hope, however, that it does not depend on heroic amounts of courage. That same situation is much more likely to make cowards of most of us.
*Movies that construe soldiers as heroes are, of course, very common. But we sometimes forget how rare they make real courage seem, even among soldiers. In most war movies (and novels), most members of the military, often including high-level officers, are “just following orders”, many of them out of lust for reward or fear of punishment. Much of the conflict pits the hero against these mediocrities.
Indeed, it is possible to raise the question of whether the modern army isn’t actually an attempt to wage war without courage or valour. (This is a common critique of drones, but was already an issue in the British navy, I was once told, when missiles were introduced that allowed one ship to sink another it couldn’t see.) Modernity aside, perhaps this has always been the purpose of a standing army; kings and emperors were finding heroes a bit too rare or too capricious (or perhaps even too honourable!) to realize their foreign policies.
**There’s probably an important relationship between courage and decency. I will explore this in a later post.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, and I had better get my act together again. I thought a good way to get going would be say a few words about the practical work of the Ethics Education Committee in the year to come, very much in the hopes that some of our readers here at the Ethicist will see an angle in it that they might find engaging. In addition to attracting Academy members who might like to work directly with the committee, I’m also looking for ways that the committee might make a contribution to the work of the various divisions.
Let me begin with the blog, which we’re hoping will become a major site of activity in the months to come. This is a place where we can discuss the sorts of ethical issues that are faced by Academy members, both as scholars and as professionals. It is also a place where we can can develop the form and content of the materials we contribute to ethics education throughout the Academy. Currently, I’m very focused on the contribution we can make to the doctoral and early-career researcher consortia over the coming years. I will have some news about that soon.
My hope is that the blog can be a place where the Academy’s members can have some influence on what we mean by ethics and how we teach it. This is the sort of question I tried to raise in my post about the two major approaches to ethics education we tried out in Vancouver.
In Vancouver I was also given the “keys” to the Ethicist’s Twitter account, which I will be trying to promote in the weeks to come. Do please help me help its future followers find it by retweeting the stuff you think is interesting. This, of course, will also give us a better sense of what you do, in fact, find interesting to talk about.
As a general framework for thinking about what the Committee can contribute, I want to propose we think about the ideal presentation, centered on the contents of the Academy of Management’s Code of Ethics, that might be delivered in 5, 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes. What would be the most important topics and principles to cover? What would be the best way to engage an audience of the Academy’s members (usually doctoral students or early-career researchers)? What’s a sure-fire way to lose them?
To my mind, ethics is a practice by which we form our moral characters. It is both individual and social. It’s the means by which we help each other become better people, and remain good in the face of life’s many pressures. It is a very practical business.
At the Academy meeting in Vancouver this year, it was brought to my attention that there were PDW’s collecting research data on participating members – without a clear ethics approval or apparent ethics protocol. That is, there was no informed consent, yet data appeared to be collected.
This was not the first time I observed our collective avoidance of Ethics Review Board (ERB) or Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocol when surveying ourselves. As previous chair of AOM’s ethics education committee, I was tasked with repeating the ethics survey that we had administered to our entire membership some years before. The first thing that I did was to ask for the ethics review board protocol, in order to be sure I was following accepted procedures.
After a few weeks of embarrassing emails and back and forth confirmations, it was eventually clear that we had never submitted our own ethics survey to any kind of ethics review board. I was told that when the AOM board met to discuss this issue there was some hesitancy to constrain the activities of divisions surveying their membership – and no clear path to indicate who would serve as an accepted IRB for Academy research. My own decision was to obtain ERB approval and protocols from my own university, and proceed with the survey in that manner.
Many of us feel IRB’s are a burden. However, it is worth noting how many of these regulations came about. For one, experiments on concentration camp victims horrified the scientific community, leading to the Nuremberg code. Much later, the experiments by Stanley Milgrom attempted to understand how people willingly agreed to do terrible acts to each other. His work, as well as famous Zimbardo prison simulation study, have led to tighter constraints on how to approach research, what is acceptable, and when ‘the line is crossed”.
One of my very first sociology professors was Laud Humphreys. He was famous for studying homosexual activities in public toilets, where he acted as the “watchqueen”. Later, he surreptitiously followed participants to their cars, identified their license plates, and showed up at their home disguised as a surveying health worker. This was done in 1960’s before IRB’s were mandated by the US federal government.
In fact, we have Academy members who come from countries where there is little of any oversight regarding research, particularly social science research. However, I would argue we have a collective responsibility to observe the highest standards of research protocol, despite the burden, for our entire membership.
Our own code of ethics addresses this issue, although not as stridently as one might expect, as there is no specific mention of IRB procedures:
Participants. It is the duty of AOM members to preserve and protect the privacy, dignity, well-being,and freedom of research participants.
1.7. Informed Consent: When AOM members conduct research, including on behalf of the AOM or its divisions, they obtain the informed consent of the individual or individuals, using language that is reasonably understandable to that person or persons. Written or oral consent, permission, and assent are documented appropriately.
2.4. Anticipation of Possible Uses of Information:
2.4.1. When maintaining or accessing personal identifiers in databases or systems of records, such as division rosters, annual meeting submissions, or manuscript review systems, AOM members delete such identifiers before the information is made publicly available or employ other techniques that mask or control disclosure of individual identities.
2.4.2. When deletion of personal identifiers is not feasible, AOM members take reasonable steps to determine that the appropriate consent of personally identifiable individuals has been obtained before they transfer such data to others or review such data collected by others
Most North American universities are under strict IRB procedures. They are virtually unanimous in stating that all surveys involving human subjects should be subjected to ERB committees. Here are a few statements from the Canadian “Tri Counsel” that governs Canadian universities:
At the end of the day, each of us, no matter where we do our scholarly work, have a responsibility to protect the respondent as much as possible, in every conceivable way. The distance between our own behavior, and the 16 German doctors convicted of experimenting on human beings without their consent, is an essential red line that we cannot allow to become a ‘slippery slope’. Thus, even when we decide to research ourselves, as professors, and colleagues, I believe we should commit to the highest standards of scientific ethical inquiry. Even if IRB’s are a ‘burden’.
At this year’s Academy meeting we had some interesting conversations in the Ethics Education Committee about our approach to teaching the Code. The traditional approach is to assume that our audiences need resources to help them to reflect on what is right and wrong in their professional practices. This can involve everything from from helping them to clarify their underlying values to helping them decide whether to credit a particular author in a particular circumstance. The presumption is that people want to learn how to become, for lack of a better word, better people. They want to learn what is right. We’re certainly willing and able to provide such support, even if we often approach it by telling them what is wrong, what not to do.
But I had the opportunity to talk a few consortium organizers in the divisions this year and I got the sense that not all our audiences feel that this is the right approach. An alternative, and one for which I’ve been arguing lately every chance I get, is to educate people about what to do when they run into ethically questionable behavior in others. Sometimes it is just that: merely “questionable”, and when the questions are answered everything turns out to be fine. But sometimes there is a need to take action, either to protect yourself from harm or to mitigate the harm that may have been done to someone else. Even when you’re blameless, you need ethics to help guide you towards a constructive resolution of the conflict.
That’s why we’ve been working to incorporate a sense of the various processes and procedures within the Academy of Management in our educational initiatives. In a sense, we want to shift the focus from the “bad guys”, who need to be told what not to do, to the “good guys”, who need to be told what can be done when bad things happen. And it’s even more hopeful than that, in fact. Sometimes, a robustly ethical perspective can give us the hope we need to discover that an apparent wrong was actually not as harmful as we thought, perhaps not a wrong at all.
Let me offer a simple example. One topic that came up a few times was the increasing problem of “coercive citation”. This is the practice of requiring someone to cite your favorite paper (perhaps even one you’ve written yourself) before you’ll publish them. Such power can be exerted by both editors and reviewers, though most of the focus these days is on the editors who do it to boost their impact factors. Now, on the traditional approach we’d try to encourage editors not to be coercive in this way. But do we really think that the Ethics Education Committee will reach the hearts and minds of senior scholars who have become editors of important journals? I’m not very hopeful about this at all.
Instead, therefore, we can try to instruct authors in how to interpret and respond to what appears to be an attempt to coerce a citation. The first rule would be to assume good faith. At first pass, a suggested citation is just that: a suggestion to read a particular paper because including it may strengthen your own. The problem arises after you read it and deem it to be either deeply flawed or simply irrelevant to your aims. At this point, a cynical author might decide to cite the paper anyway, on the understanding that it is required for publication. But a less cynical one–one that has been ethically educated, let’s say–might simply thank the editor or the reviewer for the suggestion and explain that the paper is not, in the author’s judgment, appropriate to include. If the suggestion was indeed intended to be coercive, it just ran into an obstacle (and then we can talk about what might happen next), but if it wasn’t, it would have been tragic to let it harm the quality of the original argument and corrupt the author’s integrity.
I think this sort of instruction in what our options are when something appears to be amiss but might not actually be is too often left out of ethics education. Ethics education is not really for bad people who need to become better. It’s for good people who need strategies and support for maintaining their goodness in the face all sorts of mixed signals and strange incentives. Ethics education is about telling people that there is a community in place to support their attempts to be good, not a surveillance state to thwart their attempts to cheat. In this way, ethics education might even be edifying.
From all accounts, the Academy meeting in Vancouver was a huge success. We had record breaking attendance, beautiful weather, and a wealth of interesting and provocative sessions. I also experienced a few interesting ethically related discussions, and I thought it would be worthwhile sharing a few of them in these next few blogs. The first ‘discussion’ had to do with peer review disclosure.
I was having a conversation with a very well known scholar when another colleague approached us, recognized this individual, and proceeded to tell him how much he liked the paper that was published in journal XYZ, as that he was one of the blind reviewers for that article. Suddenly, realizing that he was standing next to the ethicist blogger, he looked at me and stated “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have disclosed that, what do you think Benson”? As the well known scholar ‘rolled his eyes’, I proceeded to explain that, in my opinion, a blind review is designed to be anonymous not only before publication, but afterwards as well. The reviewer wanted to know why that was the case – and I shared my own perspective: Identifying oneself as a reviewer on a published work could only create some sort of obligation – a social exchange that might be bartered later into some sort of expected favor. After all, if we didn’t expect continued anonymity, why wouldn’t journals simply state, upon publication, the names of the blind reviewers? Surely they would deserve some of the credit for the publication? My view is that the reviewing process should be maintained as an anonymous volunteer activity, disassociated with any sense of possible obligation or appreciation, beyond what the editor and author (anonymously) provides. Forever….
Later on, I discussed this small incident with another senior scholar and an editor. Surprisingly, the editor couldn’t see a reason why not to disclose the review after publication. His point was that once the publication was accepted, disclosure would only show support and respect for the work undertaken. The other senior scholar in the conversation pointed out the ‘slippery slope’ problem – that opening up this door would suggest other possible avenues of potential influence. For example, if you were the one reviewer that wrote the most problematic reviews, would you want this disclosed? If you had two favorable reviewers, and one that was a real ‘pain’, would it be fair to help reveal who that third person might be through a process of elimination? Further, if you let it be know that you are the ‘good cop’ in the reviewing process, would you develop a reputation that attracted certain benefits or advantages, that more silent reviewers failed to appreciate?
In searching for an official answer to these questions, I first began with our own code of ethics. While it addresses the issue of confidentiality, there is insufficient detail to precisely indicate what our normative behavior should be, although there is an emphasis on maintaining confidentiality. Specifically:
2.1.1. AOM members take reasonable precautions to protect the confidentiality rights of others.
2.1.2. Confidential information is treated as such even if it lacks legal protection or privilege.
2.1.3. AOM members maintain the integrity of confidential deliberations, activities, or roles, including, where applicable, those of committees, review panels, or advisory groups (e.g., the AOM Placement Committee, the AOM Ethics Adjudication Committee, etc.).
22.214.171.124. In reviewing material submitted for publication or other evaluation purposes, AOM members respect the confidentiality of the process and the proprietary rights of those who submitted the material.
Given our own code is not particularly explicit, I took a look at the peer review policy of Nature, one of the preeminent scientific journals of our time:
As a condition of agreeing to assess the manuscript, all reviewers undertake to keep submitted manuscripts, associated data, and their own peer review comments confidential, and not to redistribute them without permission from the journal. If a reviewer seeks advice from colleagues while assessing a manuscript, he or she ensures that confidentiality is maintained and that the names of any such colleagues are provided to the journal with the final report. By this and by other means, Nature journals endeavour to keep the content of all submissions confidential until the publication date other than in the specific case of its embargoed press release available to registered journalists. Peer review comments should remain confidential after publication unless the referee obtains permission from the corresponding author of the reviewed manuscript and the Nature journal the comments were delivered to. Although we go to every effort to ensure reviewers honour their promise to ensure confidentiality, we are not responsible for the conduct of reviewers.
Following that, I also took a look at the policy of Science, another outstanding scientific journal:
Confidentiality: We expect reviewers to protect the confidentiality of the manuscript and ensure that it is not disseminated or exploited. Please destroy your copy of the manuscript when you are done. Only discuss the paper with a colleague with permission from the editor. We do not disclose the identity of our reviewers
Thus, while some journals seem to indicate continued confidentiality is expected, it appears that there may be differences of opinion, interpretation, and possibly even confusion regarding what is expected of a blind reviewer, and what would be considered professional or unprofessional conduct.
It would be great if a some of our members weighed in regarding their own opinion on this matter: Do you think it appropriate for a reviewer to disclose that they were part of the double blind process, after publication?