On serving two masters: An open letter to John E. Fleming

From Lívia Markóczy and Jeff Goldberg

Dear John,

In your ethics column in the Academy of Management Newsletter (October 1997) you pointed out some problems caused by the competing pressures of serving the academic community and management practitioners. We agree that there is a problem, but it is larger and distinct from what you mention. We think that the conflict between scholarship and serving practice is largely a creation of our greed, and once understood the solution is apparent, but it has a price.

We will take as our starting point a quote from Daniel Dennett

[T]he ``cutting edge'' [of science] is almost always composed of several rival edges, sharply competing and boldly speculative. Many of these speculations soon prove to be misbegotten, however compelling at the outset, and these necessary by-products of scientific investigation should be considered to be as potentially hazardous as any other laboratory wastes... If their misapprehension by the public would be apt to cause suffering ... scientists should be particularly cautious about how they proceed, scrupulous about labeling speculations as such, and keeping the rhetoric of persuasion confined to its proper place. [From Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Sec 7.1]
If we accept Dennett's position (and we do), it becomes clear that striving to state the practical relevance of each and every bit of our work is a disservice to the community. It is, in fact, irresponsible of us to do so. It is not only that our work may not stand the test of time (which only time will tell), but any particular study necessarily looks at only one or two things and often just one aspect of that one or two things. Such work is part of our collective attempt to construct the big picture, but it is only from the big picture that it would even be possible to offer advice.

In the long run, of course, being able to do something useful with our theories may be the only true test of their validity. But that can only work as a long run view.

So, the best way to serve the wider community is to resist the temptation to offer premature advice; to work on building up the big picture; and to be ``scrupulous about labeling speculations as such.'' Anything else is a disservice to the community.

This would resolve the ``conflict of pressures'' that you wrote of. Ignoring the pressure to provide guidance for practice is the best way to serve both communities. But why, if the resolution is so easy, don't we do that? Money. People are willing to pay for premature and boldly stated advice. If scholar A says:

Sorry, although I have some opinions about how my theory might effect practice, and I certainly believe my theory is correct, it would be irresponsible of me to even hint at such implications until the field has had a chance to fully digest my work. So I won't say anything even though you are offering me $1000 a day.
Scholar B will say ``Cash or charge?''

We are not denying the importance and value of consulting work. But consulting work must be based on well established, proven and uncontroversial results and theories. It should not be based on our current cutting edge research. On those occasions where claims of practical importance are used to justify poorly constructed research the action is doubly damaging to practice.

Just as pharmaceuticals must be shown to be ``safe and effective'' before they can be sold to the public, maybe we should consider imposing some sort of regulatory regime to prevent us from selling snake oil. Short of such a drastic measure, there are smaller steps we all can take collectively and individually to ensure that we better serve the community.

  1. Resist the temptation to state or hint at practical importance of each individual research project or paper.
  2. Encourage replication. Quality replications should be publishable in quality journals and valued.
  3. Value (and publish) negative results.
  4. Following Dennett we ``should be particularly cautious about how [we] proceed, scrupulous about labeling speculations as such, and keeping the rhetoric of persuasion confined to its proper place.''
These will help us help practice more than any number of grand new theories. The ethical dilemma is not a conflict of pressure between scholarship and serving practice, but instead we must chose whether to serve practitioners or to milk them.


Lívia Markóczy
Jeff Goldberg

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