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Ethics in scientific and technical communication

by Jean Hollis Weber

WISENET Journal 38, July 1995, pp. 2-4.

For more than 20 years I have edited scientific and technical materials aimed at both specialist and general audiences. I have also done a lot of technical writing over the past 8 years and, more recently, taught professional writing (mainly technical writing).

During this time I have witnessed or been faced with many situations that I would describe as ethically suspect, and I have read about many more.

This article is a brief summary of some general categories of ethical issues. None of this material is original; many articles have been published on ethics in communication. Each topic could be (and has been) the subject of whole articles.

Knowing and doing – taking personal responsibility for one’s actions

The Society for Technical Communication in the USA regularly runs an ethics column in its national newsletter. A typical situation from the workplace is described and readers are invited to choose which of several proposed solutions they would follow (or propose a different solution). The responses are published in a later issue.

One thing that clearly emerges from these columns, and from newspaper articles and discussions with scientific and technical communicators, is the dichotomy between knowing what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and applying that in situations where your job, or possibly even your life, could be placed in jeopardy if you do the ‘right’ thing. We’ve all read about the ‘whistle-blowers’ who are demoted, sacked, harassed, and so on, for making public some information that someone in power did not want known.

I think that all ethical questions boil down, at some point, to accepting personal responsibility for one’s own actions, not hiding behind ‘I was only following orders’ or ‘that’s not my job’ or some variation on that theme.

Is it legal? Is it ethical?

Legal and ethical are not synonymous. Slavery was legal in parts of the USA until the Civil War. Australian law seriously restricted women’s rights until fairly recently. Wife-beating is still legal in some parts of the world. Emerging technologies mean that the law often is well behind the times; but we must make choices now, not wait for the law to catch up.

We read particularly about issues in genetics and medicine, but there are plenty in scientific and technical communication as well. Computer technology and the Internet have given us the ability to access, distribute, and copy information more quickly and easily than before. Censorship is difficult; so is policing intellectual property rights.

‘But it’s not illegal’ is no excuse for failure to accept personal responsibility for your ethical choices.

Behaviour toward colleagues, subordinates and others

One general category of ethics in communication covers such things as:

  • Plagiarism versus credit for work done by others.
    We all know about people in power taking credit for work done by colleagues or subordinates; it seems to be a common part of the way business is done. It’s especially common when the powerful person is a man and the less powerful one is a woman.
  • Harassment and undermining of a person’s position.
    This covers a multitude of behaviours, some extremely subtle such as the constant and deliberate misinterpre-ation or misrepresentation of someone’s actions. (‘She comes in late and leaves early; she isn’t pulling her weight or isn’t serious about her work’, when in fact she is working evenings at home). Volumes have been written about the application of this ethical misbehaviour to keep women in subordinate positions.
  • Stupid vs malicious actions.
    Everybody makes mistakes. Do not jump to the conclusion that an action, no matter how awful, was deliberate (unless, perhaps, that person has a history of malicious actions). Most ethical misconducts are genuine mistakes; someone didn’t think about the consequences of their actions or the fact that something might be misinterpreted.
  • Another common situation is the dilemma of ‘if I tell the truth, someone will be hurt by it’. Which is more important? Depends on the situation. Your interpretation of what they should have done might be quite different from mine.

Dealing with experimental subjects, interviewees, etc

The whole issue of informed consent and ethical behaviour in dealing with experimental subjects, interviewees, etc is too complex to be covered in this paper.

Telling the ‘truth’

Here’s an area that seems to be clear-cut:

  • Don’t falsify data or state as truth something that you know to be false.
  • Don’t deliberately misrepresent the facts.

Less clear-cut, because they are not always so easy to do, are the following:

  • Distinguish between facts and opinions.
  • Always check the facts.
  • Don’t assume that what an ‘expert’ has said is the truth; experts can make mistakes too, or they might lie.

Rhetoric – choosing your words

Even if you have the facts, you can distort the message, either deliberately or accidentally, through such techniques as:

  • Using loaded words
    Terms like ‘admitted’ instead of ‘said’ or ‘stated’ (‘admitted’ makes the speaker sound reluctant, as if he or she would prefer to hide something), or ‘alarming’ and ‘dramatic’ when a statistical increase or decrease is fairly small. I don’t ‘admit’ that I am a feminist; I may proclaim, announce, or state it.
  • Using discriminatory language
    Readers of this journal will be only too aware of this practice.
  • Using sentence structure to convey subtleties of meaning
    Here are two statements that could be made about a co-worker:
    ‘Jean’s work is slow, painstaking and meticulous.’
    ‘Jean’s work is meticulous, painstaking and slow.’
  • The first sentence leaves one with the impression that Jean might not be the speediest worker, but her results are excellent. The second sentence suggests that although Jean’s results are very good, she takes far too long to achieve them.

    I’m sure you can think of similar statements that could be made on a variety of topics.

  • Sensationalising
    This is related to the use of loaded words, mentioned above. To get the reader’s attention, one often feels the need to find something dramatic or sensational to say. When is this ethical, and when isn’t it?
  • Using logical fallacies
    Presenting something as proof when it is only evidence is one very common logical fallacy. Sometimes it’s caused by a lack of understanding, but other times is deliberate. Other logical fallacies include taking things out of context and jumping to conclusions; there are many more.

How much detail is appropriate?

A common question in scientific and technical writing is how much detail to include. In many cases lack of space requires omission of detail. In other cases, the writer makes a judgement that the reader doesn’t need to know the detail, or that the detail is more than the audience will understand. Sometimes these judgements can be used to hide information that you don’t want to disseminate, but in most cases the writer isn’t trying to hide anything. The writer’s job is often to explain a complex topic at an appropriate level for the audience.

For example, users of a word processing program do not need to know, and in most cases do not want to know, how the computer or the program work. The users simply want to know how to use the program to accomplish their tasks. So the writer chooses only that subset of information that contributes to this goal, and includes a reference to a technical manual or other source for those users who do want to know the computing details.

The choices are more complex when summarising results of scientific papers or studies in the press, or in Environmental Impact Statements, and so on, because of some of the problems noted earlier under Rhetoric.

Choosing between advocacy and objectivity

Some scientific and technical communication is clearly advocacy. Urging people to ‘slip, slap and slop’ certainly simplifies the issues by cutting out most of the detail, and it certainly is advocating a course of action. A discussion paper on the causes and prevention of skin cancer should cite differing opinions and give references.

A major criticism of much of the information on smoking is that it’s not ‘objective’; it clearly takes a pro- or anti-smoking stance. Whether that is good, bad, or indifferent is a matter of opinion, but it is certainly an ethical issue (without, in my view, a clear-cut answer).

Again, you can surely think of numerous other examples.

Jean Weber is a technical writing consultant. For many years she was a scientiific editor with CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and a technical editor with IBM Australia Ltd.

STC code for communicators

The following code is reprinted from the Society for Technical Communication’s Annual Report 1993-1994, as an example of the sort of ethical code that communicators might follow. Obviously it does not try to spell out what to do in specific instances, but rather summarises broad categories of thought and behaviour. The American spelling is from the original.

As a technical communicator, I am the bridge between those who create ideas and those who use them. Because I recognize that the quality of my services directly affects how well ideas are understood, I am committed to excellence in performance and the highest standards of ethical behavior.

I value the worth of the ideas I am transmitting and the cost of developing and communicating those ideas. I also value the time and effort spent by those who read or see or hear my communication.

I therefore recognize my responsibility to communicate technical information truthfully, clearly, and economically.

My commitment to professional excellence and ethical behavior means that I will:

  • Use language and visuals with precision.
  • Prefer simple, direct expression of ideas.
  • Satisfy the audience’s need for information, not my own need for self-expression.
  • Hold myself responsible for how well my audience understands my message.
  • Respect the work of colleagues, knowing that a communication problem may have more than one solution.
  • Strive continually to improve my professional competence.
  • Promote a climate that encourages the exercise of professional judgement and that attracts talented individuals to careers in technical communication.

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Last updated 23 November 1998