Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors
In this post I describe a situation of collegial bad faith in which I believe four of the ethical guidelines of the AAA were violated: Do no harm; Be open and honest; Weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties; and Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships.
At the AAA meetings a few years ago, I presented a paper in an organized panel. Two years later, three of the four panel presentations were published in a respected journal. The excluded paper, mine, was a pointed critique of a theoretical position taken by the other three papers from a principled point of view. Thus, a carefully argued dissenting position was barred from published theoretical debate.
I use the word “excluded” advisedly, for I was not notified that any collective publication of the panel papers was underway, nor that mine was unwelcome among them. Immediately after the AAA panel, as the participants discussed the possibility of submitting their papers for publication, I asked whether, in the interest of open debate, they shouldn’t also include my dissenting views. The organizers indicated that my work “didn’t fit,” implying that they were not inclined to include it. But at that time the possibility of publishing the collected papers was only an idea. When I later discovered that the other papers had indeed been published, I submitted my original paper, with critiques of the three now published papers, to another journal. Not only did the other journal accept my paper, but the editor twice invited the authors of the other papers to respond to my critique of their work. Only the moderator of the original panel took the editor up on this invitation and contributed a response to the journal. My ten-point response to the moderator was also published in the same issue, rounding out the debate.
I read this exclusion as cowardly, unprofessional, self-interested, and inimical to the format of open debate by which scientific understanding of the world progresses. In considering ethical standards, it is tempting to look only at violations of commission. But there are also violations of omission, when someone does not do what they should have done in the interest of preventing harm, being open and honest, weighing ethical obligations toward colleagues, and maintaining respectful professional relationships.
In the present case, harm was done when the three panel papers were published together as if they were the only ones that had been presented. To fail to mention the very existence of a pointed dissenting voice was to imply that there was none: a patent untruth. The harm in question is the harm of failing to advance the discipline by allowing for the counter-position of multiple points of view.
The panel organizers were not being open and honest when they failed to notify me that the other papers were being published. Indeed, none of the other authors ever acknowledged that a debate was actually going on, that their position formed part of it, or that they had been invited to defend their work. In my view, they had an ethical obligation to consider the effect their actions had on their colleague’s career, and they impeded the progress of anthropological theory by ignoring my efforts to describe and explain humanness in all its manifestations simply because the approach I took to doing so differed from their own. It is not respectful, or honest, to ignore the constructive, relevant work of a colleague.