The Incomplete Technical Presentation


This case addresses issues of theoretical papers being presented at technical conferences that are attended by salespersons and the conflicts that arise.


Particle, Inc. has just designed a new laser diffraction particle size analyzer that can measure three separate particle size ranges of significant interest (0.01 - 1.0 mm, 0.5 - 15.0 mm, and 10.0 - 300 mm) based on adjustable lens orientation. This product is a significant contribution; current technology requires three separate analyzers to measure the size range of 0.01 - 300 mm. William, a research associate, has been assigned the leadership role in evaluating this new analyzer. This is William's first assignment for Particle, Inc., and he is determined to do a very thorough job. William and his task force have determined that the analyzer must maintain the current technology's precision and accuracy standards at each size range.

After a few weeks, William and his team completed the evaluation. The analyzer performed well, i.e., maintained the precision and accuracy of the current technology. William provided the results to his boss, Katherine. She told William that production of the new analyzer would commence. Because the breakthrough of the lens orientation would be beneficial to both academic and industrial research communities, Katherine recommended that he present the results of the analyzer evaluation at a theoretical conference on laser diffraction. William submitted an abstract.

A few months have passed, and the sales of the new analyzer have broken all previous analyzer sales of Particle, Inc. A technician in William's lab approaches him one day to tell him that he thinks that there is something wrong with the new analyzer. He explains that the analyzer is precise and accurate at each stage. However, the analyzer's measurements of the overlapping size ranges for the same material are inaccurate.

William decides to investigate this problem with several materials. After concluding his tests, he finds serious discrepancies between measurements of the overlapping ranges. William realizes that the accuracy of the overlapping size ranges should have been checked in the initial evaluation, but it was overlooked. He hesitates to tell Katherine about the mistake because it could cost him his job. However, Katherine and William are expected to present the results of the evaluation at the conference next week. Therefore, he decides to tell Katherine about the problem to save her any embarrassment at the conference.

Katherine is very upset after William told her the news. She realizes that overlooking the evaluation of overlapping size ranges was just as much her fault as William's. She is also uneasy because she has just found out that Peter, the director of sales, will be accompanying them to the technical conference to promote their product. Management has decided that Peter must go to boost sales because a competing company just introduced a similar analyzer.

Katherine, William and Peter arrive at the theoretical conference. It is obvious to the conference participants Peter is present only to sell the analyzer. During William's presentation, a professor is very impressed with the idea of reorienting the lenses to use the same test device to measure several size ranges. However, he asks William the question that Katherine and William were hoping that nobody would ask: "Did you compare the accuracy for the overlapping size ranges?"

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it appropriate for management to send salespersons to theory-oriented technical conferences to promote their company's products?
  2. What should Katherine have done when William notified her of the problem? I.e., should she have retracted the abstract?
  3. How should William respond to the professor's question about the analyzer's accuracy in measuring overlapping size ranges?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 2, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1998.

The two questions raised by this scenario are: 1) Should nontechnical (marketing) people be welcomed at a theoretically oriented conference? and 2) Should the problems with the particle analyzer be made public?

Having attended many technical conferences where salespeople make up the majority of the audience, I sympathize with the author's concerns. The problem is not with the salespeople, however, but with the conference organizers. If they are not careful in screening out patently commercial papers, they have no right to complain. A paper that describes the function and performance of a commercial product certainly would not be considered a theoretical paper. The papers probably were well-received by the marketing people like Peter, but the very inclusion of William and Katherine's paper on the program precluded the conference from being a theoretical conference.

The second problem relates to the answer that William ought to give to the professor's question. There is no doubt that he should not lie or withhold information. But there are ways of presenting the facts that will not damage the future of the product or the company. William could say, for example, that the particle counter is not designed to operate in the overlapping size ranges because the response curves are not linear and the ends of the curves can be expected to deviate, thus giving false readings. He could repeat that the particle counter has been shown to have excellent precision and accuracy if used as recommended by the manufacturer. That is, the device should be used within the three ranges; its applicability should not be pushed into the overlapping ranges. This response would have been honest and forthright (and would have saved his skin).

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Duke University.

Question 1. Peter was added to the case to simulate a frequent occurrence at technical conferences -- salespersons attending conferences to promote products. Many conferences are complemented by trade shows that invite industrial researchers to promote their products. This practice is not problematic as long as the attendees are notified of and aware of the presenters' agendas. However, sales pitches by research associates/salespersons can be biased and should be accepted with caution, especially if proceedings are published.

In this case, the conference was designed for the presentation of theoretical papers. This distinction raises the issue of attendees not knowing the presenter's agenda. This question was added to create an awareness of the possibility that biased results may be presented at a conference. It may also be noted that attendees can usually tell the sales pitches from the true research, which causes the attendees to become uneasy and angry toward the sales staff. Therefore, companies should not use technical conferences for sales promotion.

Question 2. Katherine decided to ignore the findings of William and his team and present an "incomplete" technical paper. William had the same problem but decided to tell Katherine. Or was he just passing the responsibility onto someone else? Either way, Katherine and William were responsible for evaluating the new analyzer, and they found something wrong. Should Katherine have retracted William's abstract? That would have raised concerns with management since Peter was scheduled to attend the conference with William and Katherine. If Katherine had told her supervisor, would she have been fired? Can Katherine and William continue to ignore the problem that they found?

Question 3. Katherine and William's option of continuing to ignore the problem has been eliminated by the professor's question. William must decide what to do. He can pass the responsibility to Katherine, as he did before, by directing the question to her. However, this option would probably get him fired by Katherine.

Will he lie? Should he tell the professor that he looked into the accuracy between the overlapping size ranges and found comparable results? Should he tell the professor that they haven't looked into that aspect of the evaluation? The first lie would be blatant and would create misplaced trust in the analyzer. If William pretends that he did not look into the evaluation, he could delay the inevitable discovery that the analyzer is inaccurate between the size ranges. At least he and Katherine could leave the conference without publicly disclosing the problem before they had a chance to inform management.