Best Ethics Ever?

Let's crowdsource some positive ethics!

Posted Sep 25, 2015

I’m writing this on a beautiful fall day in Colorado, but I’m tired. I’m tired of “Deflategate,” of candidates lying, of Volkswagen messing with emissions data, and of professors doing things like punishing their students for irrelevant reasons. I need examples of positive ethics, especially in academia, and I could use lots of them!

So, here’s my idea. Let’s crowdsource some positive ethics! I’m puttin’ out the call. No money needed (I make a lot of money as a college professor….). Just stories. Reply to this blog with stories of professors (or others) who went above and beyond in a way that exemplified competence, respect, justice, prudence, integrity, beneficence, or some other ethical principle or virtue

Your stories don’t have to be big, earth-shattering things. Great ethics can come in small packages, in quick moments. Back in 2010 I wrote about one of my professors, Sid Perloe, who exemplified positive ethics when he responded very respectfully to me when I had asked a question in a disrespectful way. He responded to the substance (not the style) of my question, and treated me as a human being who just happened to be a college student who didn’t know any better.

Let me get the ball rolling today by telling you about Rick Snyder—not the Michigan governor, but the University of Kansas Professor. Rick was my graduate advisor and taught me many valuable lessons during my time at KU.  The one I’ll just share today is about Publication Credits.  

A little background:  In academia publishing papers is really important, and the order of authorship is also important. To be a “principal author” (which usually means being listed first) is a huge deal. The APA Ethics Code says, in Standard 8.12, “Publication Credit”:  “Principal authorship and other publication credits accurately reflect the relative scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved, regardless of their relative status. Mere possession of an institutional position, such as department chair, does not justify authorship credit.” 

When a publication is based on a student’s doctoral dissertation the student is usually the first author (APA Standard 8.12c). But for a master’s thesis, the situation is much more variable. In lots of cases the student is the first author, because the study was the student’s idea. However, sometimes the student’s idea is so close to the ideas of the professor that the professor deserves first authorship. And every once in a while professors will act unethically by “stealing” first authorships from their students. It’s hard for students to complain, partly because they have so little power.

Now the story:  I had just finished my master’s thesis under Rick's direction. Rick and I were in his office, talking about how I needed to revise the write-up of the study so that we could submit it for publication. I was thinking ahead (today I’d say I was “buffering”) about what the first page would look like, and I knew that we’d both be authors—because he made significant contributions to my study and we had worked collaboratively. But it also struck me that I’d have to put our names in an order. Who should be first author? It was his research area, but my study idea. But he was the professor, and the director of the graduate program. 

I didn’t know what to say, fearing that he might consider it an insult even for me to question his position as first author. He was a nice man, but this was the biggest project we’d had worked on in the two years I had been in the program. What if he got upset and threw me out of his office, or out of the program?

At this point I realized two things. First, I could use some psychotherapy. Second, I needed to address the issue. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a few seconds, I said, “Uh, will this article be ‘Snyder & Handelsman’ or ‘Handelsman & Snyder?’” 

Without a second of hesitation Rick said, “Handelsman & Snyder.” Perfectly matter-of-fact, as if he said, “It looks cloudy outside.” He immediately put me at ease. And then, perhaps thinking that he should have raised the issue himself, he patiently explained to me that my idea for the study and my contibutions at every stage were indeed significant enough to warrant first authorship. Once again, I had a professor who took it seriously when I asked a question. He took the question seriously, and he took me seriously.

At that point, Rick was exemplifying (at least) competence, respect, humility, justice, and integrity. Thanks, Rick. What could be better for a beautiful fall day? Or any day?

Send me your stories. We could all use a little positive ethics.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver. With Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb, he is the co-author of Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (American Psychological Association, 2015). Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012). But here’s what he’s most proud of:  He collaborated with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography.

© 2015 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved