Concerns about the integrity of scientific investigations have increased sharply in the wake of recent high profile reports of scientific misconduct in the social, physical, and clinical sciences; some of these concerns affect the Journal of Consumer Research directly. Many current discussions about scientific discovery have shifted from trying to understand how new findings might reshape conceptual understanding to questioning whether new findings are even to be believed. When the fundamental quality of research comes under scrutiny, individual scholars and the academy as a whole are challenged to examine how that research is carried out.
In our first year as editors, we have frequently been asked to endorse, adopt, or comment on proposed solutions to the problem of ensuring scientific integrity and ethics. As editors considering possible routes forward, we have noted that the potential problems differ: for example, outright data fabrication is distinct from opportunistic data collection methods and from improper rounding of p-values. To grasp the scope of the problem it is critical to distinguish among these issues, to delineate methods for investigating and resolving them, and to understand their interplay. For example, solutions focusing primarily on data handling neglect other important priorities in the development of a literature. In this editorial, we advocate a course of action that speaks to the entirety of the research process.
Our recommendations are consonant with our perceived and desired role as fostering a cohesive and productive community of consumer research scholars. We do recognize that ethical lapses occur, including but not limited to some recent high-profile incidents. Nevertheless, our hope for the coming years is to support a research climate that harnesses the integrity of the community and thereby promotes and sustains ethical practices. As described in our first editorial (McGill, Peracchio, and Luce 2011), we view this climate of research as part of the compact between editors and authors, which seeks to build an interconnected, interdisciplinary community of scholars who share the goal of advancing our collective understanding of consumers and consumption.
Different Problems, Different Solutions
Because the field faces multiple, distinct ethical challenges, no one solution will fit. Examining the goals, costs, and overriding philosophy of proposed solutions will clarify this discussion. For example, currently being canvassed in the field are guidelines that are intended to curb publication of unreliable results by elaborating, formalizing, and highlighting the norms of data collection, analysis, and reporting, to ensure, for example, that authors do not selectively pick conditions, measures, or responses. We endorse adherence to such norms and underscore their importance. We also note that while norms will differ depending on the core discipline of the investigation (e.g., experimental, ethnographic, etc.), the protective aims of these norms are the same. The publication of unreliable results undermines the process of scientific discovery regardless of paradigm. Publications based on falsified data, or those that improperly capitalize on chance, mislead consumers, policy makers, and organizations. Unreliable results harm other scholars by wasting their limited time and resources as they attempt to replicate and extend falsehoods, only to end up demoralized and put behind in their research agenda as they unknowingly attempt to draw links between truths and falsehoods.
Proper treatment of data is a research imperative. Nevertheless, we are concerned that the present tenor of the discussions and the structure of the solutions may produce an environment that presumes abuse and emphasizes oversight. You have no doubt seen this at work. Have you been on a flight in the United States recently? As you conformed to the security checks, you undoubtedly appreciated the importance of the goals the screenings were meant to serve. You may also have felt degraded by the negative presumption or numbed by the process and you may even have wondered further if all this screening was really doing any good. As editors, we caution that this security-check approach to oversight in the sciences, which seems to presume a lack of integrity, may leave researchers feeling similarly degraded, numb, and deeply skeptical of the value of the external standards. Such external standards and oversight systems may not yield the desired result and may not be offset by measurable benefits.
Academic researchers conduct much of their work alone or in shifting teams of coauthors without supervisors double-checking their behavior each step of the way. Thus, it would be difficult for any broad-based external oversight system to detect overt efforts to falsify results or even procedural rule-bending regarding sample size determination, reporting of all measures, and so forth. As the Economist noted recently, “Far from preventing abuse, complexity [of regulation] creates loopholes that the shrewd can abuse with impunity” (2012, 9). Honest researchers may be disheartened while engaging in the academic equivalent of removing their shoes and displaying their shampoo.
Beyond dulling some of the joy scholars may find in their craft, adoption of a detailed system of oversight might paradoxically cause harm. Instead of promoting trust in one another, rigid oversight may suggest that rules violations are common among fellow scholars and that the job of protecting the integrity of scientific advancement can be outsourced instead of being the purview, indeed the central obligation, of the individual scholar. Our proposed solution therefore takes a different tack: it seeks to champion individually and communally enforced professional standards of ethics. We have developed these norms guided by the goal of our research efforts at JCR, which is the advancement of our conceptual understanding of consumers and consumption. This goal requires a broad set of norms that address the meaning and interpretation of data, not just their collection, analysis, and reporting.
Below we describe our perspective on the field and our role as editors as they both relate to the issue of research ethics. We believe that we have a responsibility to set the tone for consumer research as a field where we work as an interconnected community to build knowledge. In addition, we call for each member of our community to reflect on their own personal code of ethics, and we provide initial support for these efforts.
Solutions: The Editors' Role
As editors, our paramount goal is to foster a fair, realistic, and open-minded review process that yields substantial and reliable advances in our understanding of consumers. To be successful, this review process must recognize how scientific knowledge is built, and it should promote ethical practices by acknowledging the sometimes slow and stumbling development of ideas, encouraging programs of investigation, and emphasizing that solid contributions need not be the last or the most perfect word. The progression of science involves taking what we have all learned so far, providing new insights, and handing these insights off to others for further development.
In this view of science, each publication constructs a bridge from past findings to future investigations. Hence, as noted above, unreliable data are not just putting a bad “fact” into the record; they undermine the progression of scientific discovery by constructing a shoddy scientific bridge that misdirects future scholars and resources. Misrepresentation of prior research findings to make a current paper seem a superior advance by ignoring, selectively citing, or distorting the labors of researchers who have come before similarly undermines this progression. Acknowledging previous research accurately is just as important as reporting data faithfully. Akin to falsifying or manipulating data, fudging the literature also throws up shaky scientific bridges. In addition, we encourage scholars to search the literature more broadly when they seek related results and frameworks and to look for links across concepts rather than just across variables. We also lament authors' taking the same conceptual advancement and submitting it concurrently or nearly so to different journals, as this practice slows the process of discovery by misdirecting resources.
Our Philosophical Approach
We believe misrepresentation of data and the distortion of the prior literature derive from mistaken beliefs that papers must in all cases report startling new insights unimagined by scientists who have worked in the area before and that emergent theory must come with unassailably supportive data. Although we doubt that we can fully reshape such beliefs, we hope to discourage these practices through the stewardship of a review process that sees research papers as moving the scientific community forward, not existing solely for the benefit of the individual scholar. Our editorial decisions are therefore intended to reflect the evaluation of each article in terms of its contribution to our community's scientific progress, to lay out promising paths for future exploration. For papers that are intended to serve as conceptual advancements, it is not the data per se that are generalized but rather the theoretical understanding to which these data speak. As a consequence, we believe efforts to replicate prior work should be aimed at the conceptual ideas as much as at the experimental results in isolation.
This view led to our requesting that authors write a “contribution statement” for each submission to explain what is known so far in the field and how the present work intends to add to that knowledge. We ask reviewers to see research in this light, as intended “advancements,” allowing for incomplete answers and embracing honesty in reporting of data, including the surprising result or the errant mean. We do not require a perfect, polished stone of an empirical package. As editors of a premier journal, we may ask you to pursue explanations for odd or unpredicted findings or we may ask you to reconsider your conceptualization if inconsistent findings suggest more than a minor problem in your account, but we do not consider their presence a fatal flaw. We look at the entirety of the empirical account. As editors, we understand that scientific progress is bumpy. Send us a full accounting of your findings and position them against an accurately characterized literature. In return, we will do our best to preside over a review process that emphasizes joint discovery and values advances that may come in a variety of important but imperfect forms.
In addition to this broad philosophical approach, we underscore the following principles and procedures. First, we remind authors to organize and safeguard their materials and data to facilitate future research investigations. Second, we will evaluate all conditionally accepted papers against plagiarism software in an effort to deter the appropriation of others' work and duplicate publication of ideas. Finally, we emphasize the importance of providing an accurate account of one's methods and data. Other researchers should be able to understand fully how the research was conducted, the nature of the materials, what was found, and how it was found. For example, conditions, respondents, and measures should not be selectively chosen post hoc to support hypotheses.
Solutions: The Individual's Role
While ethics in research is a hot topic in light of recent news reports, researchers have long grappled with the difficult questions of proper research practice to create a serviceable professional standard of ethics. While we may agree on the broad principles, these professional standards need to be powerful enough to withstand the strong situational pressures felt by scholars throughout their careers, and they must be detailed enough to reflect the decisions and choices that researchers must make daily. The broad goals evident in “be a good person and don't cheat” are probably too global and vague to stand up to the multitude of everyday ethical challenges faced throughout a research career. It is around the rules for how to handle these everyday challenges that researchers likely differ. Our goal therefore is to encourage researchers who have created their own standards of professional ethics to make them as explicit as possible and to share them with coauthors, colleagues, and students and for others who have not yet done so to codify their own. Discussion and dissemination of these individual standards will, we hope, promote the longer-term goal of building consensus as a research community on shared, ethical practice. To assist in building an ethical code, several codes have been posted on the JCR website (http://ejcr.org/ethics.html), and we welcome other postings to this site.
To facilitate discussion and comparison, in the next section we provide a possible organizing scheme for a professional ethical code built around the groups of people, the stakeholders, who are affected by a scholar's decisions. In offering this organizing principle, we acknowledge that we have extended the discussion of behaviors beyond simple reporting issues for respondents and studies and, perhaps, beyond the domain some might consider relevant to our role as editors. However, an ethical stance across this broad range of behaviors should produce not only more credible individual research papers but also a superior literature that builds with integrity on prior work by an aware and connected community of scholars.
While researchers tend to work alone, or nearly so, in gathering data and writing papers, no one works in complete isolation from other scholars. Each scholar engages in investigations that benefit from the efforts of coauthors, seminar participants, and other researchers, many of whom the individual researcher may never meet, who are working in the same area. Interdependence with other scholars suggests ethical questions. Is the order of authorship I have chosen appropriate and fair? Have I provided an accurate characterization of prior work by myself and others?
As scholars give advice on colleagues' draft papers and characterize contributions in reviews and promotion letters, they have the chance to serve other scholars with integrity and generosity. Have I provided my best efforts, minimized and disclosed any remaining conflicts of interest, and provided an open rationale for my recommendations? In seminars and discussions, have I sought out and considered the ideas of others? Other scholars represent the group on whom researchers are most dependent and, as a consequence, virtually every decision a scholar makes can be viewed through the lens of whether the researcher is serving other scholars with integrity.
The importance of publishing for advancement and the standards by which researchers are evaluated shape the type of work that is conducted and exert particular pressures on scholars, especially at the beginning of their careers. In this area senior colleagues can use their influence to create an environment that encourages high quality research conducted with integrity. In this light one might ask: Have I evaluated scholars for promotion at my own institution and in promotion letters by reading a body of work for the quality and magnitude of advancement, not by counting papers in alphabetical bins? In posing the prior question, we are offering not merely food for thought but also a personal view shared by the three of us. More specifically, we believe that procedural or cultural expectations that privilege the quantity of publications over collegial development and interchange of ideas can inadvertently create a culture that encourages ethical lapses. We believe we all benefit when letter writers and tenure review committees read papers deeply and in juxtaposition to the literature.
In harmony with the general theme of this essay, we as editors believe that Institutional Review Board (IRB) regulations are a necessary, but not sufficient, approach to our relationships with research respondents. As one example, there may often be a gap between a debriefing statement that meets the requirements regarding notification of deception and one that truly allows respondents to learn something for their efforts.
While protection of respondents is well established in our community, researchers may do well to widen the lens with which they consider participants, asking questions along the way such as, Have I considered fully what I offer in return to respondents who provide their time, opinions, preferences, feelings, and thoughts in my studies?
The printed pages and computer files that comprise the literature serve a broad network of present and future scholars. The opportunity to add an honest, transparent, and complete accounting of what authors know and how and why their findings came about should motivate each writer.
Questions here include: Have I left a stable base on which other scholars may build? Have I sent papers for review proud of my potential advancement to the field's understanding? Have I responded to reviewers' comments in the spirit of scientific advancement? Recognition of individual contributions as a part of a larger literature, as an integral piece in the shared production of knowledge, may highlight the importance of ethical questions related to the positioning and content of individual contributions. Have I clarified prior work and my research contribution? Have I maintained the productive thrust of the literature? Will others be able to use what I have provided to add to the knowledge of the field?
The Profession and Society
Each researcher has a compact with society. Researchers have the opportunity to use their time and talents to pursue the scholarly questions that they are, often uniquely, positioned to address.
Here the ethical questions move beyond the integrity of individual papers to the ambition and goals of researchers' efforts. Have I set out to advance the literature? Often smaller projects may be undertaken so that together they provide a large advancement. What is the longer term consequence of my work?
Dissemination of our scientific findings to the broader public, such as through interactions with the news media, is a vital scientific endeavor and scholarly responsibility. Have I transmitted knowledge in a way that best informs and serves the wider public?
Academic researchers have the opportunity to influence the next generation of scholars through their interactions with students and junior colleagues. Have I imparted to my students the skills, judgment, and values needed to address important problems in ethical ways?
An academic position carries the amazing gift of much autonomy to chart one's own life's work. Most of work us in environments in which students have paid tuition for their education, not for our research projects specifically. The hope is that our work will generate a larger body of knowledge for future students and for society. Donors and governments have transferred money to us as well in the belief that scholarship benefits others. Have I used these gifts to deploy my unique talents and skills in a way that is beneficial to science and society?
We have no doubt that each of you has thought about your relationships with the stakeholder groups above. At this point, we encourage you to consider other scholars, respondents, the literature, the profession, and society in the context of your own professional ethical code, to make it explicit and to flesh out its details for how it might be applied to the day-to-day conduct of your research and scholarship. We hope that you debate this code with your colleagues and present it to your students for discussion. Through our collective actions to advance scholarly ethics not only will the field make ethics a central, shared priority but in time we will work toward shared standards as well.
For now, this call for codification, dissemination, and discussion, cast within the context of scientific research above, may invoke a consideration of your lifetime scientific contribution to our scholarly community. Consider the advice of Grant Achatz, molecular gastronomist, highly successful restaurateur, and stage four cancer survivor, when he remarked of his mentor, “Thomas Keller … would always leave me a list of things to do and a couple of times he would write at the top: ‘What is your legacy going to be?’ … What he is saying is: Think about your life every day, how you're going to live it and how you're going to contribute to the lives of others” (Cooperman 2012, D3). In developing and expressing your own code, we ask you to consider: What is your legacy going to be?
Our first editorial ended with the following sentence: “We are all fortunate to be partners in a collaborative scholarly community characterized by much prior success as well as sharing great opportunities for future discovery.” We intend this second editorial as a call to reaffirm the communal aspects of research and to make research integrity a centerpiece of our community of scholars.