Transparent (Photo credit: Dicemanic)

When I first encountered disclosure rules as a young editor, I remember feeling that under the pretense of offering a clearer view, a veil was actually being drawn across the reader’s eyes. This veil was termed “transparency,” an ironic term given the fact that while authors may disclose associations or entanglements, it’s very difficult or completely impossible to know what specific effects disclosed entanglements might have on what appears in a published paper.

It’s as if you’re being asked to solve ethical algebra without operands — given a set of variables, solve for “conflict of interest,” but there is no way to even know where the equal sign belongs in the string of variables.

A recent essay by Stephen Ward on the PBS Mediashift blog calls the practices of transparency and disclosure into question, raising the prospect that perhaps we’ve been drifting away from clear ethics and into a cloud of affordance and accommodation by embracing disclosure as both necessary and sufficient. Ward argues that while it may be necessary, it is not sufficient.

Too often it is a magical idea — a norm with seemingly magical powers to restore democracy. It is a “god” of institutional ethics. Academic studies indicate that transparency cannot meet our expectations.

Ward argues that ethics have to be grounded in responsibility to the facts at hand and their potential impact on people (as his essay is about journalism, he phrases this as “story-based responsibility”). These ethics should restrain reckless publication and compel the correction of errors. There is also what he calls “society-based responsibility,” which for journalists involves bringing truth to power, providing multiple perspectives, and so forth. For scientific and scholarly publishing, I would describe this as following facts and evidence even if it means displeasing prevailing power structures — including funders, corporate allegiances, or academic employers.

Transparency not only fails to speak to ethics, it is a double-edged sword. Used in the place of actual ethical behavior, it can confound the imposition of ethics, shielding unethical acts behind a claim of transparency. You may show a bias toward a certain product or approach, but if you let people know you were bound to be biased, the culture of transparency makes it harder to pursue ethics claims. You were, after all, transparent — in the same sense that Vegas pickpocket Apollo Robbins is transparent as he lifts things from suspecting targets.

Ward also addresses the mistaken belief that transparency is essential to democracy. As he writes:

Transparency should not be identified with democratic practice. One can be non-transparent and democratic. This is because democracies value other values, such as privacy. Democracies allow confidential discussions between lawyers and clients and between management and unions in collective bargaining. Democracies provide private voting booths, and some countries prohibit the naming of young offenders. . . . Democracy balances transparent and non-transparent practices.

Democracy also allows privacy and confidentiality around peer review. Confidential pre-publication peer review is not perfect. It’s flawed. It can be thwarted by unethical authors, something transparency cannot change (transparency is too weak to thwart overt dishonesty). Despite its limitations, pre-publication peer review improves nearly every paper. Making peer review more transparent is a delicate process full of risks — to participation, quality, frankness, and even recommendation. (Who, after all, wants to publicly go on the record as having said a paper by their boss or boss’ boss is garbage? Perhaps just giving it a good grade in a transparent environment would be a better idea than telling the truth.) In this context, transparency is a risk.

When transparency is overused or used without thought, it can lead to risk-averse behavior. Instead of backroom deals and quiet compromises, leaders or organizations stick to plans that they feel can stand public scrutiny and survive the sunshine of transparency. Unfortunately, part of the world works best in private and outside the view of prying eyes.

Ward contrasts transparency against independence. It is one thing to be transparent, but you may not be independent. FOX News comes to mind — there is no “transparency” per se (the network does not openly disclose its clear ties to Republican strategies and strategists), but clearly the network is not an independent arbiter of information. Many Murdoch properties exhibit this depressing trait — non-transparent but readily apparent political fealty instead of journalistic independence. From a transparency perspective, disclosure matters little. The problem isn’t transparency. It is more about fundamental ethics.

In a discussion of publication ethics, transparency is only one possible outcome. Transparency, in and of itself, is not an unalloyed good. It can result in counterproductive behaviors, stifle swift and courageous action, and make people think twice about being honest and forthright.

I’ll let Ward’s final words from his essay end this summation:

Putting transparency in its place does not mean it is unimportant or that it must be a magical concept. We just have to be careful about how we define and rank it as a value. We . . . need to go beyond a general understanding of [transparency’s] place in ethics. We need to develop concrete guidelines on how much weight to give transparency. . . . The work of developing a detailed ethics of transparency lies in the future.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


6 Thoughts on "Seeing Beyond Transparency — Do Disclosure Rules Blunt the Need for Actual Ethics?"

Transparency alone is no substitute for checking and a skeptical eye. If a reviewer declares some connection to an author, I might still accept their review but would examine it with more than usual care knowing there was potential for bias.

The connection between reviewers and reviewed is a tricky one. You want knowledgeable reviewers, which means they need to be close to the science. At the same time you don’t want them scratching each others’ backs. Disclosure is helpful only in the sense it alerts me to possible problems which bear watching.

I think disclosure is necessary, don’t get me wrong. The problems seem to arise when people either think disclosure is sufficient (it’s not) or when transparency is demanded where private deliberations work better.

The balance is tricky, you’re right. Sometimes, the best reviewers are in such high demand that they have many entanglements. These can cancel each other out to some extent, while also giving them leading-edge knowledge and insights. Some people with no entanglements can be the worst reviewers because they have nothing much to offer. It’s a balance, that’s for certain.

During national conferences the speaker physician/researcher disclosure slide goes up for the audience and world thought leaders list dozens and dozens of “conflicts.”

One that caught my attention was a speaker who transitioned to his next slide saying:

“My talent and experience can be rented by many, but owned by nobody.”

Finding myself agreeing with Kent, which is a refreshing feeling. It is true that in peer review, prescribed transparency may lead to overtly positive “i-am-here-to-make-friends” atmosphere, and erode the value of peer review as a filtering and designating step in publishing.

That being said, reviewer carelessness is a bigger problem than reviewer bias in any direction. Transparency, or more precisely, putting public reputation at stake, does help to encourage people put time and effort into considering whether what they say in peer review is accurate and justified.

Both un-biasedness and scientific quality are desirable qualities of peer review. But are opposite transparency policies needed for those two, putting us in a trade-off situation?

One wonders what librarians feel about the “nondisclosure” clauses in their Big Deal contracts and what publishers feel about the ND clauses in any agreements they sign with Amazon and Google?

I’m a new librarian and I think they are ridiculous and completely unethical and I doubt many librarians would disagree. It basically takes the “free” out of “free market” since you have no way to know what your peers are being charged and if you have received a fair price…

(I know that’s not quite how “free markets” work but it’s the closest I can think of).

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