Unethical behavior in business research has recently attracted wide attention, reaching beyond the scientific community (Kullmann 2012). Alongside scandals involving plagiarism, the (mis-)use of data and selective modeling in empirical studies have been discussed. The use of selective, manipulated or over-interpreted data are perceived to be harmful to society and in violation of the ethical standards of the research community. As a consequence, the general public and policy makers have called for a more ethical research behavior. Following Fink, Harms and Hatak (2012), we define ethical research behavior as such activities in the systematic process of knowledge generation that are in accordance with the value system of the research community.
Across all disciplines, the value underlying good research practice is honesty towards oneself and others (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft 1998). Based on this value, various organizations have developed guidelines for good research practices such as the Declaration of Helsinki (World Medical Association 2008), Ethics-Codex of the German Sociological Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie 1993) or Guidelines for Data Documentation (Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty 1995). For business administration, the Code of Ethics of the Academy of Management (AoM 2006) and the documents of the working group on scientific work ethics of the German Academic Association for Business Research (VHB 2013) are useful tools. Typically, these guidelines illustrate their concept of ethical research behavior by providing a negative definition such as “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or other serious deviation from accepted practices in proposing, carrying out, or reporting results from activities […]” (Office for Research Integrity 1997).
However, ethical research cannot be enforced by simply drawing up a set of formal rules and implementing regimes of control and sanction (Fink et al. 2012). Researchers’ self-commitment to informal rules is limited as this mechanism requires stable and shared informal rules to match the ethical evaluation of the society. This commitment cannot be taken for granted, especially not in research areas that require highly specialized knowledge such as the numerous fields of business research.
The challenge of limiting research behavior to socially desired activities, is, as Fink et al. (2012) show, exacerbated in that the effectiveness of formal and informal rules in restricting research behavior differs according to the research context. For example, research in the field of nanotechnology showed that the research contexts of autonomy and competition influence the effectiveness of formal and informal rules. In situations of low autonomy or high competition, the fear of violation detection of the formal rules is particularly effective, while in situations of low competition self-commitment to informal rules is particularly effective.
- Fink, M., Harms, R., Hatak, I. 2012. The Role of Regulation Versus Self-Commitment in Shaping Researchers’ Behavior. Journal of Business Ethics 109 (4): 569-581.