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It Takes Courtesy and Respect to Resolve Professional Disputes

Mar 1, 2019


Situation

An assistant professor and ASCE member submits three abstracts to the program committee of an ASCE conference, hoping for the opportunity to describe his ongoing research as part of the conference's technical sessions. When all three of his abstracts are rejected, the dismayed member contacts the program committee chair to learn the basis for its decision. The program chair responds that abstracts in general were judged on considerations such as timeliness, originality, and overall technical merit. The chair also states that the committee's standing policy is not to provide specific commentary on any submission it had reviewed.

The member objects to this policy, claiming that for the sake of fairness he is entitled to know why his papers were deemed deficient, but the chair declines to provide any additional details. When repeated appeals to the chair and other committee members are similarly denied, the member fires off an intemperate email to the entire program committee, accusing them of stonewalling and decrying their "gross lack of transparency."

Communications between all parties quickly devolve into a series of heated exchanges. The assistant professor forwards one chain of emails to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) and states his desire to pursue ethics charges against all eight members of the technical program committee, citing violations of nearly every canon of the ASCE Code of Ethics.

The assistant professor claims that the committee chair had appointed members of the technical program team solely on the basis of personal friendship and that they had "corrupted" the review process to serve their own professional advancement and that of others within their inner circle. In support of this claim, he identifies what he believes to be a number of inconsistencies in the committee's actions.

First, while the committee members claimed that reviewers had received far too many submissions to provide individualized feedback, the abstract submission deadline for this conference had been extended by three weeks, a fact the complainant attributes to an insufficient number of submissions. Second, while the call for abstracts had stated that only two papers per author would be accepted, one person on the final program had been named as a coauthor on a total of four technical sessions. Finally, several members of the program committee were themselves listed as authors or coauthors on a number of accepted sessions, with no indication that the selection committee had taken steps to address this potential conflict of interest.

The result, the complainant alleges, was a disservice both to ASCE and the program attendees, in which a small group of regular presenters offered "recycled content," while new researchers such as he were denied the opportunity to present ideas and develop professionally.

In submitting his complaint to the CPC, the assistant professor takes the extraordinary step of copying not only the accused committee members but also more than a dozen volunteer leaders of ASCE and the program committee's technical institute. Incensed by the complainant's broad distribution of his complaint, the committee members quickly respond with an ethics complaint of their own, claiming that the assistant professor's verbally abusive and defamatory emails had themselves violated the ASCE Code of Ethics.


Question

Did the actions of any of the members involved in these complaints violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?

Discussion

While the original complainant's narrative included questions about the committee members' competence, truthfulness, and overall integrity (Fundamental Canons 2, 3, and 6), the CPC very quickly narrowed its focus to two ethical issues: ASCE's language on faithful service and fair criticism.

As members of an ASCE board or committee, entrusted with the power to act on the Society's behalf in matters that impact the organization's reputation and financial health, volunteer leaders are considered to have a fiduciary obligation to perform their duties in good faith and in the best interests of the Society. Because this obligation mirrors the engineer's duty to employers and clients, the CPC has commonly deemed that "the Society" can be substituted for the phrase "each employer or client" when applying Fundamental Canon 4 to volunteer service: "Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees and shall avoid conflicts of interest."

The volunteer's duty to serve as a "faithful agent" to the Society also includes an obligation not to abuse a position of trust and authority so as to unfairly advance the volunteer's standing or to disadvantage another. Fundamental Canon 5 states that "Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others," and guideline g under that canon adds: "Engineers shall not maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, injure the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of another engineer or indiscriminately criticize another's work."

When contacted by the CPC, the program committee was considerably more forthcoming about its process than it had been with the assistant professor. The chair explained that each submission was directed to a team of three reviewers, each of whom would respond with a simple recommendation to accept or decline. Only papers that received at least two "accept" responses were approved for inclusion in the conference. Because of the difficulty in recruiting volunteer reviewers, the committee had elected not to require the volunteers to submit more substantive evaluations. For this reason, the chair maintained that they simply could not provide specific feedback to rejected authors without asking the reviewers to re-review those submissions, a step the committee was not willing to take.

The chair further noted that the review process was a blind process, meaning that reviewers did not know the author's name or affiliation for any submission they reviewed, and he assured the CPC that the committee's process had been carefully managed to ensure that no member had decision-making authority over any submission in which he or she had a personal interest. He flatly denied any suggestion that the committee was biased against new presenters or new research, and he cited the conference's strong registration numbers as proof of the program's technical merit.

With respect to the committee's own complaint, the CPC noted that the assistant professor had, at various points in his email exchange, labeled the committee members as "self-serving," "unprofessional," and even "corrupt"-accusations that were at least reckless if not knowingly false, raising questions about the assistant professor's own compliance with guideline g's strictures on indiscriminate criticism. When asked by the CPC if he had any additional information in support of those claims, the complainant chose instead to walk back his statements, claiming that he had merely spoken out of frustration for what he felt was an unreasonable rejection of his request.

As is frequently the case with disputes of this nature, the CPC ultimately felt that members on both sides of the issue had been goaded into actions or comments that were not completely in line with standards of professional behavior. However, the CPC did not believe anyone would be well served by formal disciplinary action.

The CPC sent all parties a letter, advising them that the committee had chosen to dismiss both complaints but reminding everyone of the importance of courtesy and respect in resolving professional disputes. In its communication with the technical program committee, the CPC also made a point of registering concern about the committee's evaluation process.

While understanding the committee's wish to be respectful of its volunteers' time, the CPC neverheless felt that the lack of transparency in the abstract review process deprived authors of rejected submissions the benefit of understanding how to prepare more successful submissions in the future. More importantly, from an ethics standpoint, the process fostered an environment in which submitters might easily perceive that decisions were made on the basis of bias or favoritism, even if in fact no such impropriety had occurred. Given this consideration, the CPC encouraged the conference committee to review its existing policies on rejected abstracts and consider establishing a reasonable process for explaining to authors the basis for unfavorable decisions.

-Tara Hoke




Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.


© ASCE, Civil Engineering , March 2019