SIOE and professional ethics: A personal reflection

By Tore Ellingsen, President of SIOE

A prominent member of our Society has been accused of academic dishonesty. Colleagues have asked me whether SIOE ought to act, and if so how. The general question seems to be this: What ought to be the role of SIOE, as an organization, in policing the research ethics of our members and governors?

SIOE does not currently have in place any procedures or principles for handling such matters. In this short statement, I propose that we keep it that way. (The statement is my personal opinion, and it is tentative. If other members of SIOE think otherwise, please feel free to contact me. The Board is likely to discuss the matter at its next meeting.)

Put simply, my view is that the policing of research ethics ought to be carried out by bodies such as publishers and employers rather than by conference organizers like us. Only if these bodies conclude that there has been misconduct should we consider repercussions for SIOE. In the meantime, we should proceed under the presumption of integrity.

I know from my own experience how tempting it can be to take a more activist role. A few weeks ago, I signed a letter that condemns a controversial article by the aforementioned SIOE member. In my eagerness to do the right thing, I trusted the authors of the letter and the many respectable people that had signed it before me. Only afterwards did I more carefully consider the letter’s credibility. To my dismay, several of its claims are poorly founded. In a particularly egregious case, I found that the linked source only mentions the cited claim to say how unfounded it is.* I now regret my personal decision to sign the letter – not because I know that the targeted article is right or even defensible, but because I do not know that the letter’s main accusations are right.

Just as one often needs to be an expert to evaluate the coherence of a formal theory or the conclusions that might reliably be drawn from a data set, one often needs to be an expert in order to distinguish unpopular historical truths and informed speculation from intentional falsehoods and idle speculation. I allowed myself to forget that. I shudder to think what it would have felt like if I had taken a similar stand in my capacity as President of SIOE.

Why, then, do I even raise the matter? Should I not wait until SIOE’s Board has had the time to deliberate? That was indeed my intention. However, on March 25, SIOE received a complaint about another paper that was presented at one of our conferences, and which can therefore be downloaded from our website. The writer demanded that we correct or remove the paper. In my opinion, we should firmly refuse the request. Acceptance of papers to SIOE conferences does not confer a comparable level of scientific legitimacy to that offered by reputable academic journals. Program committees conduct only a light peer review. The threshold for being accepted to a conference is primarily given by the number of submitted papers relative to the available space at the conference rather than any absolute measure of quality. We are not acting like publishers when we accept a paper for presentation. It would be wrong of us to act like one afterwards.

Policing research ethics is important. But that does not mean that everyone should be doing it.


* For readers who can guess which letter I talk about, the cited claim concerns an estimate that “roughly 75 percent died from this experience”; clicking on the hyperlink reveals that the source concludes: “None of Arafune [sic] figures have any basis whatsoever. It is most unfortunate that Special Rapporteur McDougal, who held a responsible position working for a United Nations organization, relied on such an untrustworthy source.” It is deeply ironic that this statement is taken to support the 75 percent figure that it denounces.