Tuesday, May 25, 2010

JMS Suppresses Scholarly Debate

This is a bit of a long story, but the details are important. I’ve given it a great deal of thought, and I have decided that I can’t, in good conscience, remain silent. In my opinion there is an important conversation to be had in organization studies, especially among sensemaking scholars, about the way we cite the work of others, both inside and outside the field. We’re not having that conversation, and this story, I think, says something about why that is.

A few weeks ago, I tried to publish a critical comment on the new correspondence site of the Journal of Management Studies. Sally Maitlis and Scott Sonenshein had been invited by the editors to reflect on the influence of Karl Weick’s famous 1988 paper on the Bhopal disaster. While their paper raises many important points and does a good job of indicating future directions for sensemaking research (directions, I should note, that my own work will no doubt be taking), it also unfortunately exhibits our field’s characteristically careless scholarship, which not only rarely corrects past errors, but often introduces new ones. My letter to the correspondence site identified two examples.

The site is a moderated forum, so I had to wait for my letter to be approved, and after a few days I received an email from Steve Floyd, a general editor at JMS, thanking me for my post. My letter, he told me, clearly met the aims of “stimulat[ing] intellectual debate and discourse on topics that have appeared in the journal or on other topics of interest to scholars of management and organizational studies” and he added that they “would like to see it on the site”. There was a small problem, however.

One of the examples I had identified concerned what Maitlis and Sonenshein (2010: 562) call Weick’s “retelling” of the familiar story about a group of soldiers who were lost in the Alps but eventually found their way using a map of the Pyrenees. I pointed out that Maitlis and Sonenshein subtly change the story; they say that the soldiers found their way “through” the Alps, not back to camp, as the original story (and Weick) has it. I also pointed out that they cited the wrong source (Weick 1979, where the story does not appear, instead of, e.g., Weick 1995: 54, where it does) and that they would have noticed this if they had tried to identify the exact page they were citing. Not doing this, I noted, has become annoyingly commonplace in the literature, though doing it would make it much easier to check each other’s texts against their sources for accuracy or simply to learn more about the event in question. It would have taken me less time in this case, for example, to establish to my own satisfaction that the story simply does not appear in Weick’s 1979 book (though, again, since they wouldn’t have been able to find the page to cite in that book either, the situation would not have come up). As Mark Anderson (2006) has shown, Weick’s book, The Social Psychology of Organizing, has had an alarmingly uncritical reception, and this sort of gratuitous citation (for something the book does not even say) is probably all too common. It’s a classic, after all: everyone talks about it but no one reads it (as everyone says without knowing who said it).

All of this was presumably both interesting and stimulating to the editors of JMS. But I went on to point out that Weick’s own sourcing of the story is rather less than adequate. He did not just “retell” the story; he plagiarized it, as Henrik Graham and I pointed out in 2006 in ephemera. Weick has told the story many times (in 1982, 1983, 1987 [2001], 1990, 1995: 54) and, although his version is a verbatim reproduction of a poem that was published in the Times Literary Supplement in the February 4, 1977 issue, he never puts quotation marks around it. He names the poet, Miroslav Holub, in only two cases (1990, 1995). Weick says he “hauls [it] out almost every chance [he] get[s]” (1995: 54); and I suppose I haul out the charge of plagiarism just as often. It will appear, for example, in a paper to be published in Culture and Organization later this year. [Update: it has now been published.]

My aim is not just to expose an instance of plagiarism. It is to get sensemaking scholars to stop telling the story as “an incident that happened during military maneuvers in Switzerland” (Weick 1995: 54) and to stop drawing theoretical conclusions from it. Our only source of knowledge about “what happened” is a poem one of our scholars lifted from the pages of a newspaper. Some old-fashioned source criticism, that is, should get us to reevaluate the proposition that “any old map will do”. There is certainly none of the requisite “richness” (Weick 2007, PDF) in our basis for the story that would justify drawing new conclusions about things like “commitment”, as Maitlis and Sonenshein do.

Now, Steve Floyd did not wish, as he put it, to “censor” me, but he had run it past the legal department at Wiley Blackwell, which told him that my letter made “certain charges against Professor Weick that could be considered defamatory”. If I could remove that charge, said Steve, JMS would be happy to publish my letter.

Before I continue, let us pause for a moment to consider what that means. First of all, it means that I would be allowed to engage in an act of source criticism just as long as I did not reveal the true nature of the source. That’s rather absurd, but it should not obscure a more important implication. While not without its problems, Maitlis and Sonenshein’s scholarship not only lives up to but also exceeds the standard set by Weick’s work. (I can defend that claim quite generally, but there can be no doubt about it in the particular case I’m discussing.) I was being told that I would be allowed to question the scholarship (here, merely the result of carelessness) of two younger, less established scholars if I removed my more serious criticism of the far more established and far more influential scholar they had inadequately cited. The editors of JMS, that is, would let me question some lesser reputations if I did not touch the major reputation against which the rest of us are judged.

Let me stress that this would be the effect of the changes they proposed. It is not their stated aim. The only reason they gave for not publishing the letter as-is was the possibility of a costly legal battle with Karl Weick.

So I wrote back in an attempt to get them to change their minds. I pointed out that not only was the charge made in public already four years ago, and not only did Weick not at that time sue the journal that published it: he wrote a rejoinder (PDF) that was published alongside the charge. Moreover, when the charge is published again later this year, it will once again be accompanied by a response from Weick, who has not, to my knowledge, threatened to sue Culture and Organization or otherwise sought to have my scholarship suppressed.

In the frank exchange of views that now ensued, I pointed out that, even if there were a risk of legal action, it would be a risk worth taking. If a well-documented case of plagiarism can’t be discussed openly, our claim to be a scholarly community is rendered somewhat doubtful. Besides, could the editors not just satisfy themselves that the charge is true (and therefore not libelous) by looking at the texts? I was also surprised that they would react to such an abstract “exposure” to risk—a potential legal threat from one of their own authors. After all, couldn’t they just write to him and ask him whether he would sue? If they were going to protect him from criticism, they could at least get themselves into a position to do so at his request, I suggested. My arguments, as you may have guessed, did not persuade.

While working out my position on this, I went looking for a precedent of some kind, and found a both disturbing and heartening example in the strange case of Joseph Weiler and Karin Calvo-Goller, which I blogged about at the time. In his account (PDF), Weiler rightly described Calvo-Goller's legal action against his website (for publishing a negative review of her book) as "misguided and inconsistent with the most fundamental practices of all academic institutions with which I am familiar and with traditional academic discourse" (974). In addition to harming her own reputation as a scholar, he noted, such an attempt "to suppress a critical book review" (969) could have "a serious chilling effect on editorial discretion, freedom of speech and the very important academic institution of book reviewing" (974). For some reason, which I still don't fully understand, JMS appears to feel that kind of chill very acutely. It is willing to suppress debate without even the threat of legal action. While Weiler is standing up to the reality of such action, the mere possibility has here been offered as sufficient grounds not to publish. Moreover, by making this decision on outside legal advice rather than its own scholarly judgment, JMS effectively gives up both its own editorial discretion and my freedom of speech. To refuse to publish my criticism unless I remove the charge of plagiarism is, to use Weiler's words again, "misguided and inconsistent with the most fundamental practices of all academic institutions with which I am familiar and with traditional academic discourse". Sort of like plagiarism itself.

The immediate aim of my letter to JMS was to try to correct a long standing error in the literature. The more long-term aim is to begin a conversation about our standards of scholarship—and the difficulty here, it seems to me, is itself a sign of our need to talk.


Jonathan said...

It looks like the field doesn't take itself that seriously in this case. You've brought this plagiarism out in the light several times, yet people still want to cover it up.

Thomas said...

Yes, it does look that way. Fortunately, there are some serious characters around and my work, like I say, does sometimes get published. So I think this conversation is going to happen, albeit slowly.