The Curious Ethics of Some Ethics Professors

Like the seasons, friendships come, and friendships go. It is a melancholy fact of life that around the world at any given moment, thousands of new friendships are born, and thousands of old friendships are dying.

Bitterness may remain in the carcass of some expired relationships. For most of us, there is little that we can do about it other than talk to friends (or therapists) and endure it until time heals the wound. For the sake of social harmony, that limitation to acting upon one’s resentments is probably a good thing.

Some, however, have more power and so have more options. A resentful lawyer might contrive a legal case and take you to court. A resentful songwriter might weave your perceived faults into lyrics. A resentful boss might have you fired.

What might, say, a very well-connected and resentful ethics professor do?

A Friendship Lost

I hate losing a friend—and she was one of my closest. The friendship had lasted for several years and was mutually supportive and extremely productive (it was a working relationship, too).

Then, as too often happens … a rupture. I’m not completely innocent; but neither is she. I still hoped the relationship could be repaired. I apologized for my part; she apologized for hers.

But there came a point some weeks later where, it seemed to me at least, I had coalesced into intractable evil in her mind. For me, the “point of no return” in a friendship is when a person refuses to accept your explanations. She felt, apparently genuinely, that she knew better than I did what I really meant when I said “X.”

Our last couple of direct exchanges consisted of her telling me, in some considerable detail, how and why I was a terrible person. I do have plenty of faults, but she referred to what I felt I hadn’t done, hadn’t meant, hadn’t intended, and hadn’t thought. So, I gave up the ghost.

Problem was, we had a child. No, not a human child, but a project. We were under contract to produce a research article incorporating a new and complicated statistical methodology, on a complicated topic, for one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious journals in the field. She was supposed to be the expert on the methodology, not me, but she chose to quit the project, claiming overwork and marriage issues. Also, she had encountered an impasse in her analysis, decided she could not (or no longer wanted to) figure it out, and proposed hiring someone else to do her part of the article’s work.

I had finished my half of the work but was unfamiliar with how to do hers. But there I was, alone responsible for completing the project. She helped by telling the editor that my work was all wrong before I even started it. The editor promised that she could write a rebuttal if it was substantive.

After a few intense, unpleasant months, I had canceled all my trips and other plans, learned how to implement the new statistical methodology, purchased and learned the appropriate data analysis software, and completed the analysis and the article, which was then accepted by the editor and three reviewers, pretty much as is.

My old friend was still on the mailing list, because she was still scheduled to write a critique. I asked the editor to let her do whatever she wanted: she could write her critique, or she could be listed as co-author if she wished. To add a choice in-between those two extremes, I wrote a glowing acknowledgement praising her, which I knew she would see (because she was still on the project mailing list) and could delete if she wanted to.

I do not know what happened with her critique.1 According to the publishers’ rules, she could not be listed as co-author because she hadn’t written any of the article’s sixty pages of text, figures, and data. So, the acknowledgement might have seemed a good compromise.

To my surprise, the article was posted online as a preprint months before its announcement or publication. She saw it, of course, and wrote me an email message objecting to the acknowledgement, as she had every right to do. Within a day, I had contacted the editorial office in India and asked them to delete the acknowledgment in the preprint. Apparently, they did not delete it immediately, for whatever reason, but did delete it later. The acknowledgment was never a part of the published version of the article.

A Study in Revenge

That mix-up with a temporarily posted preprint and editorial staff in India was exploited by my former friend and her spouse as a pretext to accuse the journal editor and me of deep-seated, craven immorality. We are now publicly pilloried via a variety of international publication outlets.2 According to my old friend, my glowing praise of her was “unconsented acknowledgment” and “a form of authorship abuse.” I hadn’t written the text to be gracious, generous, and conciliatory as I had thought. No, I had done so “to cleverly imply her endorsement.” My motives were “easy to surmise—that is, to denote endorsement of the paper [by her] and dilute my responsibility in the analysis and interpretation of the data.”3

All but one of the postings are links to, copies of, or derivatives of a single base article in a peer-reviewed, scholarly ethics journal housed at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

That article is a personal smear, just an ethical step or two above revenge porn, dressed up with a bunch of citations to give it the superficial appearance of a scholarly article. It is based entirely on my old friend’s preferred interpretation of events. No one at the journal contacted me to learn the other side of the story. I also doubt they tried to contact the editor of my article’s journal, who is demonized as unfairly as I am.4

Their study is a beautiful example of unethical scholarship. Presented as an “actual case,” it is mostly inaccurate, and no effort was made by the journal to verify its alleged facts. Indeed, some are just made up.5 The listed author is the husband of the case study’s main, allegedly virtuous protagonist (my old friend). The article does not divulge this conflict of interest. My old friend is obviously a co-author but is not listed as such. The study does not offer the opportunity for rebuttal to the two individuals demonized in the article.

I appealed to the editor of the case study’s journal to help make things right. She refused.

Her rationale? Pseudonyms were used in place of our real names, so, according to her, no one can tell who the characters demonized in the case study are.

Well, I certainly can, and so can hundreds of colleagues in our small, tight-knit profession with whom my old friend and I worked for several years. Moreover, there is nothing to stop the case study authors from disseminating the article on their own and identifying their characters. Indeed, they can use the article as a “peer-reviewed, scholarly” affirmation of their character assassinations.

Apparently, the editor of the ethics journal feels it is fine to present an inaccurate case study as “an actual case,” publish an article conflicted by marriage, not divulge that conflict of interest, and so on … so long as pseudonyms are used.

As for the despicable case study character “Nick” (i.e., me), hundreds of readers can easily identify him. Should there be any doubt, the authors provide generous hints (e.g., “[his] research was somewhat controversial in the US. An author of several books and papers on the subject, he was a well-known and vocal advocate of one of the factions in the debate.”).

The hints are unnecessary to relate the alleged substance of the “case” (e.g., “Nick” is an American, worked with “Maria” for several years, is “controversial,” “author of several books,” etc.). The hints are helpful, however, to precisely identify me to others within our mutual circle of colleagues. The authors also exploit their monopoly of access in the journal article to inject gratuitous personal insults, which also are extraneous to relating the alleged substance of the case.6

Their characters speak not so much like human beings as unidimensional stereotypes of virtue and malevolence. Virtually every reference made to my behavior or the behavior of “Dave” (my article’s journal editor) drips with insinuation of moral decrepitude.7 Meanwhile, the listed author’s spouse is portrayed as earnest, expert, and reasonable, but victimized and defenseless.8

One might have thought that the impossible black-and-white morality of the characters alone would have persuaded a journal to reject the article for publication. Another tipoff to an ulterior motive is the depth of character development in general. There is no comparison between their judgmental diatribes and a case one might read in a legal journal, where characters are identified only so much as is minimally necessary to understand the essential legal facts and principles.

Conclusions

How has all this come about?

Distilled to its essence, my old friend once asked for my opinion, and I responded frankly. What I said was absolutely nothing more than an opinion—how I felt on a particular matter at a single point in time. It was not a conclusion, decision, or directive. It had no actual bearing on anything real. Nevertheless, she didn’t like it, and, in the time since, has summoned that dislike as justification for efforts to ruin my professional reputation.

As for the editor of Research Ethics, the case study’s journal, I borrow from the case study authors’ own text (p.5), now soaked in hypocrisy:

It is expected that editors should be receptive and willing to take action to prevent and correct research misconduct but not all take up the challenge. In [my] case, the editor did not take the kind of corrective measures espoused by the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE, 2011), which affirms that editors should “always be willing to publish corrections, clarifications, retractions and apologies when needed”, even though the journal [is] affiliated to COPE. While most editors are ethical in their conduct, some abuse their editorial powers.

Looking back on this whole sad soap opera, one curious but salient fact stands out above all the rest: these are ethics professors in action.9


1 It lies at least within the realm of possibility that her critique was not published because her assertions of my article’s faults were invalid.

3 Had I really wanted to dilute my responsibility, I would have just not done all the work in the first place. It was not a fun way to spend a few months; I would have enjoyed much more doing what I had originally planned.

4 E.g., The case study authors claim that “Dave [chose] to ignore Maria’s repeated requests to delete the acknowledgement.” (p.5) [They don’t know that. The editor may have contacted the India office immediately, just as I did.]

“It is expected that editors should be receptive and willing to take action to prevent and correct research misconduct but not all take up the challenge. In Maria’s case, the editor did not take the kind of corrective measures espoused by the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE, 2011), which affirms that editors should “always be willing to publish corrections, clarifications, retractions and apologies when needed”, even though the journal was affiliated to COPE. While most editors are ethical in their conduct, some abuse their editorial powers.” (p.5) [The fact is, the acknowledgment was removed, and removed before publication.]

“If the journal board had been more powerful, Maria’s appeal to the board might have proved successful. Having an individual or a regulatory body appointed in the role of ombudsman might help to prevent abuses, making editors more accountable and likely to live up to their duties and obligations.” (p.5) [Again, the fact is, the acknowledgment had been removed at her request.]

5 Fibs abound. As aforementioned, the case study authors inaccurately claim that: my article’s editor ignored her requests to remove the acknowledgment; I wished to dilute my responsibility for my article (which I am extraordinarily proud of, by the way); and I wished to imply her endorsement of my article. Here are just a few among many more:

  1. I did not ask “Maria” to help me with a research project (p.4, last paragraph). We first met at a conference, after a session where I presented the results of some of my research. She approached me, suggesting that I extend work on the topic with an analytical method called meta-regression, with which I was unfamiliar. I responded saying that I was not interested because, after many years of working on the topic, I was tired of it. I suggested that she do the work she proposed, and I would give her all my accumulated work and data. A working relationship continued over several years as she repeatedly requested my help on other projects. We were working on this project because she wanted to try her hand at doing a meta-regression.
  2. I did not propose publishing research I knew to be wrong (p.4, para.2). At one point, “Maria” was frustrated and confused with her part of the project work—the meta-regression itself—and she asked for my opinion on how to proceed. At that moment, I knew nothing about how to do a meta-regression, and she knew that I knew nothing. I did know that a journal editor and reviewers—world-leading experts on the topic—seemed happy with our progress and wanted to publish our article after, of course, we responded satisfactorily to all their suggestions (and there were more than a few). As for evidence that the manuscript was “wrong” and should not be resubmitted to the journal, “Maria” mentioned that a friend of hers told her that the coefficient Tau was not right. I had no idea what a coefficient Tau was, but, to my knowledge, that friend had no expertise in meta-regression. That’s it. That is the sum of the evidence provided to me to convince me that the entire manuscript was wrong and should not be resubmitted for publication. I preferred to trust the expert editor and reviewers who had read the entire manuscript in depth, rather than the friend who, to my knowledge, had only been asked about the mysterious coefficient Tau—one number in a sixty-page paper full of many thousands of words and numbers.
  3. I was not determined to go ahead with the project without her at that point (p.4, para.3), nor could I have even if I had wanted to, as we had jointly signed the contract to produce the article. “Maria” said at the time that she wished to be removed from the project for purely personal reasons (i.e., overwork, marriage issues), with no mention whatsoever of the grievances she would later so prominently promote. She and I then signed the addendum to the contract, removing her as an author. It was weeks later that she first declared to the editor that the article was all wrong and that she wished to either write a critique or re-join the project. I had not asked, or wanted, her to quit, nor did I ask her to re-join the project later. By that point, the accusations and character assassination had begun, and I chose not to work with someone demonizing me.

6 E.g., “statistical design and data analysis was not one of his strengths”; (p.3) “Maria felt that their working relationship was relatively fluid, although not devoid of tensions. She appreciated his efforts but believed him to have a tendency to overstate findings and felt driven to correct some of his statements. When it came to errors, Maria was inclined to err on the side of caution.” (p.4)

7 E.g., The case study authors claim that “Dave [chose] to ignore Maria’s repeated requests to delete the acknowledgement.” (p.5) [They don’t know that, actually. The editor may have contacted the India office immediately, just as I did.]

“If the journal board had been more powerful, Maria’s appeal to the board might have proved successful. Having an individual or a regulatory body appointed in the role of ombudsman might help to prevent abuses, making editors more accountable and likely to live up to their duties and obligations.” (p.5) [Again, the fact is, the acknowledgment was removed.]

8 E.g., “when it comes to acknowledgment abuse, victims are virtually defenseless and do not have a say in the matter. Like Maria they find themselves as simple pawns, used and taken advantage of by others who control the game.” (p.6) [The fact is, the acknowledgment was removed at her request before the article was published.]

9 Specifically, the ethics professors include: Mladen Koljatic, the case study’s listed author, Monica Silva, the case study’s allegedly aggrieved protagonist and Koljatic’s spouse, and Kate Chatfield, the editor of Research Ethics. Though I contacted all those on Research Ethics’ editorial board for whom I could find contact information, I do not know what role, if any, any of them may have played in relevant decisions. Koljatic and Silva are affiliated (or recently retired) faculty at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago. Chatfield, of course, is faculty at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.


Image: Andrew Gritt, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Richard P. Phelps

Richard P. Phelps is founder and editor of the Nonpartisan Education Group. He holds a PhD in Public Policy from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and is the author of "Kill the Messenger: The War on Standardized Testing."

3 thoughts on “The Curious Ethics of Some Ethics Professors

  1. Interesting article but tis a pity the specifics of the issue could not be clearly described. However, the ethics of putative ethics experts, college professors of the subject, is an interesting topic of inquiry . My guess is that the more examination it were to get , especially in it’s real life use and official expression on real maters, the more curious attention it would attract by non expert common sense appraisers. But today academia is captured by a hostile racial warfare unacknowledged and blocked from public scrutiny with cooperation of academica, massmedia, social media and government. But up close , there have probably been many friendships formed before the WOKE
    mindset programming blossomed that suffered as a result. I think women were a major target for induction as victims and enmeshedd in a faaux empathy package hat is really a weapon against Western civilization but in the USA at least, has long targeted white heterosexual males for some manner of destruction, while dividing everyone else by race, gender, or other minority identity each of which is victimized by the symbol of Western civilizaation:
    the White European-race heterosexual man.
    I thinks it works -the mind programming- on those who can view corporate media especially national news daily for a does of conditioning fortification.
    where did such expertise in mind conditioning and programming come from?
    Is it derived from Pavlov’s work? I duuno.
    The war is still in a relatively late-early stage and probably will become aggressive once the target is deemd a helpless minority. ick!
    I hope I am wrong. But we may assume that ethics professionals will have no help to offer; and might become part of the weapon.

  2. On what basis does LeifFraNorden make the assertions in the comment’s second paragraph? My extensive reading about academic fraud and professorial childishness over the past 40 years tells me that those assertions cannot possibly be taken at face value.

    On the contrary, I found Prof. Phelps’s account of his experience had a familiar ring to it.

  3. The piece deals with what is essentially a personal conflict. His defense appears written for a small number of colleagues who already have some knowledge of the affair.

    The rest of us might judge this essay by what it is not. It does not detail systematic abuse of an individual by an institution. It does not describe a problem which extends throughout academia. It does not document an issue which is endemic to academic publication.

    With apology to Dr. Phelps has clearly suffered quite a bit, we ask the editors: ‘Why does this essay appear in Minding the Campus?’

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