Facts and Values Entangled
Another Ultimatum Game – with a Twist

AEA’s New Ethical Guidelines for Authors

Jonathan B. Wight

Amidst the flurry of travel and other things, neither Mark nor I got around to reporting on the American Economic Association's new principles for authors, adopted January 5, 2012. Current principles of disclosure and data submission are found here. The new extensions to these principles are:

(1) Every submitted article should state the sources of financial support for the particular research it describes. If none, that fact should be stated.

(2) Each author of a submitted article should identify each interested party from whom he or she has received significant financial support, summing to at least $10,000 in the past three years, in the form of consultant fees, retainers, grants and the like. The disclosure requirement also includes in-kind support, such as providing access to data. If the support in question comes with a non-disclosure obligation, that fact should be stated, along with as much information as the obligation permits. If there are no such sources of funds, that fact should be stated explicitly. An "interested" party is any individual, group, or organization that has a financial, ideological, or political stake related to the article.

(3) Each author should disclose any paid or unpaid positions as officer, director, or board member of relevant non-profit advocacy organizations or profit-making entities. A "relevant" organization is one whose policy positions, goals, or financial interests relate to the article.

(4) The disclosures required above apply to any close relative or partner of any author.

(5) Each author must disclose if another party had the right to review the paper prior to its circulation.

(6) For published articles, information on relevant potential conflicts of interest will be made available to the public.

(7) The AEA urges its members and other economists to apply the above principles in other publications: scholarly journals, op-ed pieces, newspaper and magazine columns, radio and television commentaries, as well as in testimony before federal and state legislative committees and other agencies.

The AEA's reform is clearly needed, but does it go far enough? The AEA has resisted a formal "code of conduct" or "ethical guidelines" since it has no enforcement mechanism other than barring a miscreant from publishing in its journals. There are no licensing boards for economists, nor can one imagine them outside of a narrow range of subjects (e.g., testifying on wrongful death, cost-benefit analysis, and so on). Even then much mischief would be done by such licensing: it would likely turn into a devise to keep out competition.

Nevertheless, the AEA's response is still incomplete. I think it is possible to come up with a list of values—honesty, integrity, truth-seeking—that should be a part of the economist's toolkit. Ethical conduct should be introduced into every econ class and included in the "National Content Standards." To those who say ethics is just mush, remember that economics teachers are mentors and role models. Studying economics does impact behavior as shown in various studies. Young people are malleable and teachers are, to some extent, the potters of their clay.

Will a discussion of ethics make people more ethical? At the margin, I think so. But a lot depends on the instructor. If the subject is treated as an afterthought ("I've got to cover these bullet points…") it will also be dismissed by students. If a learning subject is treated with passion and context (as advocated by Adam Smith, using the arts… see here) I think it could have a greater impact. Not so much because it will change students, but because it will reinforce their own internal desires to be ethical.


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