Disclosing Financial Support of Study Reported in Professional Journal
A large consulting firm is retained by the manufacturer of an epoxy coating material to perform a study comparing the performance of its product with that of similar products. After laboratory testing and on-site evaluation of structures on which the coatings had been applied, the firm concludes that the sponsor’s product offers better corrosion resistance and lower life-cycle costs for the intended applications, and it prepares a written report summarizing its findings to the manufacturer.
After the report is completed, an ASCE member who is employed by the consulting firm writes a paper on the study’s findings and submits it for publication in an engineering journal. The member’s paper outlines several disadvantages presented by competing epoxy coatings and expresses the viewpoint that the sponsor’s product offers a better and more cost-effective alternative. However, the article fails to mention that the member’s conclusions were based on a study funded by the manufacturer of the recommended coating. The manufacturer posts a copy of the article on the company’s website and also omits any mention of its financial support of the underlying study.
The manufacturer of a competing product contacts the ASCE member and contends that the study misrepresented certain facts about its product and demands a retraction of the article. When the member refuses, the manufacturer files a complaint with ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC).
Did the ASCE member’s actions in publishing an article trumpeting the advantages of a particular product without disclosing that the findings were based on research funded by a manufacturer of the product violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?
Canon 3 of the Code of Ethics reads as follows: “Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.” Guideline b in the guidelines to practice notes that engineers “shall include all relevant and pertinent information in… reports, statements, or testimony,” and category d adds that “Engineers shall issue no statements, criticisms, or arguments on engineering matters which are inspired or paid for by interested parties, unless they indicate on whose behalf the statements are made.”
When contacted by the CPC, the member stated that the funds paid to his employer by the manufacturer had no influence on his paper. He claimed that the findings are the article were unbiased and derived from his participation in the study. He further stated that the epoxy coating manufacturer had no knowledge of his intention to submit a paper to an engineering journal. The member argued that the study funds represented only a minute amount of his employer’s total income and that he therefore had little incentive to publish anything untruthful in support of the manufacturer’s interests. Finally, he asked that the complaining manufacturer point to any statements in his paper that were seen as untruthful or misleading.
In support of its complaint, the competing manufacturer identified a handful of statements in which it felt the member had overstated or simplified facts concerning its product, and it cited one instance in which the member had misquoted information from its product specifications. Finally, it questioned whether the journal’s editorial staff had been made aware of the source of funding and opined that, if the staff members had been aware, they would probably have taken a more searching look at the paper before accepting it for publication.
While the CPC was sympathetic to the member’s claims that the article had been based purely on his independent observations and that he had not been influenced by his employer’s dealings with the manufacturer, its members nevertheless felt that he should have disclosed the source of financing for the study. The committee believed that the existence of a financial connection between the author and the manufacturer would have been of interest both to the journal editors and to its readership in evaluating the merits of the study. It further noted that, even where an author believes himself or herself to be objective, ASCE's Code of Ethics requires members to err on the side of caution in disclosing matters that might be perceived as creating a personal bias. The CPC thus felt that the member’s failure to make this financial arrangement known could constitute a violation of Fundamental Canon 3.
In speaking with the complaining manufacturer, however, the CPC learned that the complainant was not inclined to pursue a disciplinary hearing that might draw further attention to the disputed study. The manufacturer indicated that it would drop the complaint if the member would submit an erratum to the publisher correcting certain objectionable statements and noting that the paper had been based on a study funded by the manufacturer of the recommended coating. The committee presented its findings and its proposed resolution to the member, and the latter agreed to prepare an erratum. The member also requested the funding manufacturer to amend its copy of the article on its Web site to include notice of the financial relationship. Following publication of these notices and with the agreement of all involved parties, the committee voted to dismiss the complaint against the member.
In negotiating this resolution between the accused member and the complaining manufacturer, the CPC was guided by a resolution adopted by the ASCE Board of Direction in 1969 that reads as follows:
“In interpretation of the relationship between the Committee on Professional Conduct and the Board of Direction, …it shall be the policy of the Board of Direction that the Committee on Professional Conduct shall exercise every means possible to resolve ethical questions and charges of professional misconduct through mediation and measures other than reference to the Executive Committee. Cases shall be referred to the Executive Committee when it is the conclusion of the Committee on Professional Conduct that Executive Committee consideration of disciplinary action is the only appropriate course.”
Since its adoption, this resolution has often served as a basis for negotiated resolutions of ethics complaints. However, until recently it had never been reflected in the Society’s Rules of Policy & Procedure. In October 2010, in the interests of making the CPC's approach to resolving ethical disputes clear to all Society members, the Board of Direction approved the incorporation of this policy into the rules of policy and procedure (subsection 18.104.22.168).
Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.
Tara Hoke is ASCE’s assistant general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
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