November 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 8

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ASA Committee on Professional Ethics:
Helping Members Address Ethical Situations

Thomas L. Van Valey, Western Michigan University

Since 1971 the ASA has had a working Code of Ethics approved by its membership. Since then, the ASA Code has been revised several times, building upon its initial foundation and incorporating the experiences gained by the Association and its members. The following briefly describes the development, revision, and adoption of the Code to the present day. It also reviews the operation of the ASA Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), which is responsible for enforcing the Code.

Preparation and Adoption

The first ad hoc committee on professional ethics was created in 1961. However, there was opposition within the membership, and the project was shelved. After some widely publicized concerns about ethical conduct in research and the protection of human subjects, another ASA ad hoc committee was appointed in 1967. After multiple revisions, the Code was submitted to the membership in 1969, along with a proposal for an ASA bylaws committee to review and act upon allegations of violations by ASA members. The membership voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. While it took another two years for the policies and procedures for the committee to be approved, in 1971 the ASA completed the task of establishing a Code of Ethics and COPE—the mechanism for its enforcement.

In 1978, responding to concerns that the Code focused too heavily on research, COPE prepared a revision that added sections on teaching and the rights of students, publications and the review process, and relationships among sociologists. This revision was approved by the ASA membership in 1982. The Code was revised two more times, in 1989 and in 1991. The revisions increased attention to sociologists employed in government, for-profit and non-profit organizations, as well as to fair employment practices. Revisions to the policies and procedures of COPE focused on ensuring confidentiality within the complaint process and underscored the importance of mediation in the resolution of complaints.

The current version of the Code was approved in 1997. It opens with an introduction, a preamble, and five general ethical principles: professional competence; integrity; professional and scientific responsibility; respect for people’s rights, dignity, and diversity; and social responsibility. These principles provide the underlying framework for the specific ethical standards that should govern sociologists’ professional conduct regarding teaching, research, the publication process, and employment practices.

The Code also addresses ethical issues related to the many roles sociologists assume in teaching, research, service, practice, and supervision (e.g., plagiarism, informed consent, confidentiality, conflicts of interest). The Policies and Procedures for COPE describe both the process used by an individual for filing a complaint, and the procedures for the investigation and resolution of such complaints by COPE.

In 2007, Council authorized a COPE-lead ASA Task Force on "Teaching Ethics Throughout the Sociology Curriculum." Over the next two years, the task force produced a website with a set of resources designed to help sociology faculty teach students about professional ethics. It consists of more than a hundred cases with commentary and discussion questions, a bibliography, and web links that can be downloaded or printed for use in classes. It is located on the ASA website at

COPE and Enforcement of the Code

In becoming a member of the ASA, individuals explicitly agree to adhere to the Code, and can thus be held accountable by COPE. While the ASA Code is viewed by many as a standard of professional behavior for the field of sociology, enforcement of the Code by COPE is restricted to those who are ASA members. If an ASA member’s conduct is determined to have been unethical under the Code, the sanctions available to COPE include: a private reprimand; a public reprimand; denial of privileges; and termination of membership. The ASA Executive Officer is the liaison to COPE, and the enforcement process makes the Executive Officer the initial point of contact for persons wishing to inquire about the ASA Code of Ethics, explore options for resolving their specific concern, or file a formal complaint with COPE. Once the Executive Officer is contacted, all aspects of the discussions and processes are confidential.

The ASA receives an average of about 20 COPE inquiries a year. Many are either about interpretations of the Code or involve allegations about persons who are not currently members of the Association. Of the remainder, most are about alleged infractions that the Executive Officer or the chair of COPE can help resolve informally or provide an outside mediator to seek a resolution. Indeed, COPE procedures explicitly call for an attempt to resolve complaints informally. During the last five years, only one complaint has proceeded through a full investigation and decision by the full committee.

Some inquiries deal with highly charged matters that involve a member of the association (e.g., allegations of unfair or discriminatory tenure or promotion decisions, plagiarism, sexual harassment). Many of these complaints are also undergoing formal review by university authorities and/or the courts. COPE will not consider such cases until the official proceedings are completed. Consequently, these types of cases rarely proceed to the point of investigation by COPE because they are either resolved satisfactorily in these other venues or because their resolution (satisfactory or not) requires the parties not to disclose the facts of the situation. Nevertheless, it is often helpful for the parties to have the Code as a guidepost; the courts have used the ASA Code of Ethics as a standard for assessing professional behavior.

The ASA receives a few complaints a year about journal editors (including editors of non-ASA journals). These generally concern excessive delays in the review process, or occasionally, a manuscript that was allegedly accepted for publication and then not published. The former is not a violation of the Code, but becomes an opportunity to clarify the discipline’s norms of the editor-author relationship. While the latter is a clear violation of the Code, most such complaints are misunderstandings, resolved by seeking clarification of the situation directly with the editor. Similarly, about once a year, the ASA receives an inquiry from a journal editor about plagiarism in a paper submitted for publication (again, not necessarily in an ASA journal). Frequently, the author in question is a junior scholar and the editor is reluctant to file a formal COPE complaint. The resolution may involve the editor deciding to write a formal letter to the author, returning the paper, identifying the plagiarism, stating that the behavior is a serious ethical violation of the ASA Code, and refusing to accept any further submissions from that author during the editor’s term. Authorship disputes also occur with some regularity. While most are resolved informally, occasionally they require investigation by COPE. One took two years to resolve following a failed mediation, a full investigation, and a COPE decision that included both a private reprimand and a change in the authorship of a published article.


COPE’s recent experience suggests that there are many ASA members who would turn to their professional association for guidance or assistance about matters that are professionally important, but difficult to discuss with colleagues or superiors. The existence of COPE provides such a venue where they can expect to be treated seriously, with respect and confidentially, and to get thoughtful, sensible advice. The full text of the Code of Ethics and the policies and procedures for COPE are available on the ASA website at logo_small

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