3 May 2023

AAS Ethics Policies, Procedures, and the Path Forward

Kelsey Johnson

Kelsey Johnson University of Virginia

Over recent weeks, the Code of Ethics Committee, the Ethics Working Group, the Publications Committee, and AAS Leadership have heard from numerous community members on issues affecting our community and the role of the AAS in setting ethical guidelines and issuing sanctions. The reports we have received are being taken extremely seriously, and the related committees have had several meetings and are trying to find the best path forward — these committees are working as quickly as they can to mitigate the real harm that is being done. Simultaneously, over the coming weeks, these committees have planned a series of letters to the community on different aspects of the current ethics landscape, including authorship and citation, the purview and scope of the AAS in issuing sanctions, and the use of social media for making allegations of professional misconduct, bullying, and slander.

I am writing now to give an update on the process and provide some clarity on what we can and cannot currently do. In order to maintain confidentiality, some of what I write here is unavoidably vague, and I hope that our community will understand the requirement that I avoid specific references or examples.

Two years ago, the Board of Trustees established the Ethics Working Group, which is separate from the Code of Ethics Committee. While the Code of Ethics Committee is charged with adjudicating cases, the Ethics Working Group is responsible for creating and revising ethics policies. The board created the working group knowing that, despite best efforts, new issues would arise that required a change to existing policy.

In contrast, the Code of Ethics Committee is required to follow existing policy — and, crucially, this committee also cannot apply policy retroactively. In other words, we do not have the latitude to modify policies and then apply them to existing or past cases. We can, however, use existing cases to guide our thinking on the ways in which policy needs to be modified for the future.

To this end, the Ethics Working Group is currently considering formal changes to existing AAS ethics policies. This process must be done with care to avoid unintended consequences that may not be obvious at first glance. For example, this group is considering the formal adoption of the recommendation in the Decadal Report to consider sexual harassment — and, indeed, all forms of harassment, discrimination, and bullying — as “research misconduct”. While sexual harassment is already included in the AAS Code of Ethics, classifying it as “research misconduct” would strengthen the ability of the Code of Ethics Committee to issue sanctions.

This Ethics Working Group must also consider the implications of any policy on all parties involved in a potential ethics violation. My experience is that most of us find it more difficult to sympathize with a person accused, but we are ethically bound to consider whether all parties have been treated fairly. All ethics cases, even egregious ones, need to be considered through the lens of established facts, and work to address the harm rather than amplify it.

To this end, the Ethics Working Group is considering processes of restorative justice and redemption. While there may be ethics violations that merit substantial sanctions, including life-time exclusion from AAS-related activities, let us all hope that these cases are rare. For less grievous infractions, I believe in the importance of providing individuals with a path forward to learn from their mistakes, grow as individuals, and be welcomed back as members of our community. The details of exactly what this might look like are nuanced and complex.

The Code of Ethics Committee can and has issued sanctions along with reparations and/or required education. However, as an essential rule, the results of ethics cases are confidential, and the broader community generally does not know the details of what has happened, which can lead to an incorrect conclusion that the case was not taken seriously and/or did not result in any action. This required lack of transparency is frustrating for all of us. We are in active discussions on ways we might be able to facilitate communication on cases without violating confidentiality; one solution might be to require some form of public amends as part of the restorative justice process, but we do not yet have a policy for this.

Given the complexity of current ethical issues, the AAS is also investigating bringing a professional ethical consultant on board, which will provide us with a deeper understanding of the ethical nuances, implications, and consequences of decisions we make. Additionally, we are studying the impacts of social media on the discourse surrounding how we collectively, as a society of professionals, address difficult issues.

I want to close this letter with gratitude to those members who have provided constructive feedback and recommendations, which have been communicated to relevant committees. I also want to remind everyone that the committee members are volunteers trying their level best to help our community redress the real harm that has been done and continues to take place. We are considering what actions might be possible in the near-term (on the order of weeks), but more complex issues will require longer timescales for the necessary research, consultation, and deliberation. I ask the community for patience to allow these committees time to do the thoughtful work of improving our ethics policies and practice so that we can do better for our community.

Kelsey Johnson
AAS President