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Bad Manners Are Bad for Business

Business Side of Geology — Professional Ethics

Since starting this column in January 2001, the topics have focused on concepts and techniques to help you value your E&P ventures more objectively, or to manage your E&P business more efficiently. But Robbie Gries' stirring presidential address at the recent Houston annual meeting reminds us that ethics is a key part of our profession and business, one that we need to pay more (and more frequent) attention to.

So, without going back, chapter and verse, to our AAPG Code of Ethics, as Robbie did so effectively, I've decided to devote an occasional column to this essential but frequently neglected aspect of the Business Side of Geology — professional ethics.

Because the annual meeting is still fresh on my mind, I'd like to start with two ethical issues that seem to be arising more frequently in our presentations in open technical sessions. These issues concern:

  • Blatant commercialism in supposedly objective scientific papers.
  • The lack of appropriate acknowledgements of prior sources in our illustrations and prepared remarks.

All of us should recognize that, when we present a good paper or poster at a regional, national or international meeting, two things are happening:

We are contributing to, and participating in, the ongoing growth of geoscientific knowledge, from which all geoscientists, our employers and clients, as well as society itself, benefit.

This open tradition has been operating for at least 250 years, and I hope it will continue forever.

Inevitably, we are demonstrating technical expertise — putatively sanctioned by AAPG — that may well contribute to our career advancement, new partners or new clientele. And that's OK, so long as it is incidental to — and not the object of — our presentation.

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Since starting this column in January 2001, the topics have focused on concepts and techniques to help you value your E&P ventures more objectively, or to manage your E&P business more efficiently. But Robbie Gries' stirring presidential address at the recent Houston annual meeting reminds us that ethics is a key part of our profession and business, one that we need to pay more (and more frequent) attention to.

So, without going back, chapter and verse, to our AAPG Code of Ethics, as Robbie did so effectively, I've decided to devote an occasional column to this essential but frequently neglected aspect of the Business Side of Geology — professional ethics.

Because the annual meeting is still fresh on my mind, I'd like to start with two ethical issues that seem to be arising more frequently in our presentations in open technical sessions. These issues concern:

  • Blatant commercialism in supposedly objective scientific papers.
  • The lack of appropriate acknowledgements of prior sources in our illustrations and prepared remarks.

All of us should recognize that, when we present a good paper or poster at a regional, national or international meeting, two things are happening:

We are contributing to, and participating in, the ongoing growth of geoscientific knowledge, from which all geoscientists, our employers and clients, as well as society itself, benefit.

This open tradition has been operating for at least 250 years, and I hope it will continue forever.

Inevitably, we are demonstrating technical expertise — putatively sanctioned by AAPG — that may well contribute to our career advancement, new partners or new clientele. And that's OK, so long as it is incidental to — and not the object of — our presentation.

In addition to the venues AAPG provides for our scientific proceedings, the active networking that goes on at such meetings is also a valuable service that AAPG provides.

The problem is, what is passive professional exposure, and what is just crass business advertising?

Although the boundaries may be fuzzy, my own impression is somewhat consistent with Justice Potter Stewart's analogous comment about pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

Unless we promptly and effectively correct this developing trend, our annual AAPG meetings may well degenerate into commercial fairs.

The second issue concerns failing to cite previous workers on whom our later work rests. Because I've been a professional geologist now for 43 years, I've witnessed a lot of presentations and posters, and read a lot of articles. Increasingly, I think I'm seeing a lot of concepts, ideas, findings, quotes and even figures thrown up on the screen that I know were first put forward by someone other than the speakers who now blithely present them as their own. What I don't often see (or hear) is the obligatory "after Smith 1987," or "modified from Jones 1999."

It's not an acceptable excuse to blame such lapses on the ease and reach of the Internet, or the facility of PowerPoint, or one's ignorance of the prior literature. At worst, such omissions represent scientific dishonesty; at best, they reflect just bad professional manners. You also may be violating copyright laws.

But rest assured, your more experienced listeners do notice, and they do remember. This also applies to private presentations to clients and prospective partners.


So what do these two problems have to do with the business of petroleum geology?

Well, first, our long-term professional success in this business rests upon a foundation of intellectual and factual integrity, and small dishonesties imply larger underlying ethical shortcomings.

Second, the progress of our profession depends substantially upon learning from each other through open sharing of ideas and techniques.

When we do not fairly credit the work of others, we risk turning off otherwise worthy contributors, and also getting ourselves shut out of future free exchanges of information, by alienating colleagues who could be helpful to us.

Third, crass commercial self-promotion in scientific proceedings insults the intelligence of technical audiences, wastes their time, turns them off — and reveals the speaker's ignorance, lack of class and selfishness.

Again, influential listeners notice, and remember. Bad manners are bad business.

How to correct these problems?

  • On AAPG's part, the technical program chair for each meeting should include a prominent warning in both the Call for Papers and Notification of Acceptance to prospective presenters.

    Judges should be required to evaluate speakers' observance of these two principles, along with other traditional criteria of performance.

  • Session chairs and AAPG members in the audience should speak out at the end of offending presentations, when they find such omissions and/or commercialism offensive and inappropriate.

  • Speakers who offend twice should not be allowed to present under the AAPG auspices for three years, instead being advised to pay for a booth at next year's exhibits hall!

For prospective speakers, here are some useful hints:

  • Don't lift slides directly from your sales pitch for your AAPG paper.
  • Ask yourself, "Does my talk clearly emphasize a new technical contribution, or is it just a vehicle to promote my business?" Don't use AAPG venues as advertising vehicles!
  • Don't show data in your talk that you're not willing to release to interested colleagues.
  • Show your logo only twice — on your opening and concluding slides.
  • Go over each slide carefully and proactively, looking for material originated by someone else, and acknowledge them!

This month's recommended reading: "Stocks for the Long Run," by Jeremy Siegel (1994 McGraw-Hill). An excellent, thoughtful perspective on personal investing, based on thorough, documented historical data.

Read it, you'll like it!

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