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The Ethics and Public Relations Implications of asking for help April 25, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Large Collaborations, physics life.
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I’ve been having a debate with a few friends of mine. I have definite opinions. First, I’ll lay out the questions. The span ethics and also potential PR backlash. These conversations, btw, are all with friends – no one important, so don’t read anything into this! This is long, and my answers are even longer, but I hope a few of you will read and post (yes, everyone is busy)!

Lets take a purely hypothetical situation. A person has joined a large scientific collaboration like CDF, DZERO, ATLAS, or CMS. As part of joining they agree to abide by a set of rules. For example, not discussing an analysis publically before it has been approved by the experiment.

I apologize in advance to those who are not part of this life, or who don’t care. This blog posting will be even less interesting than normal!

Here are the questions. I’m curious about the answers from both an ethics point of view and a political point of view. Or any other point of view you care to bring to bear. I’ve put my answers below. The setup below is hypothetical! And I have some personal issues with #7! #8 is the one I’ve gotten most push back on when talking with people.

  1. You are a member of said collaboration and you anonymously post all or part of an internal document to a blog.
  2. You are a member of said collaboration and you post non-anonymously to a blog.
  3. The blog owner(s) are unaffiliated with any experiment. Are they obligated to take it down?
  4. The blog owner is affiliated with the experiment (e.g. say someone posted an internal DZERO or ATLAS abstract to my blog). Are they obligated to take it down?
  5. Is it ok for the experiment to ask the blogger to reveal the posters information? For example, the wordpress blogging platform, which I use, keeps internally a record, visible to me, of the posters IP address, which might be able to identify the poster. Is the answer any different if the blog owner is a member of the same experiment? How about a member of a competing/different experiment?
  6. Does the blog owner have to respond with the information to the experiment?
  7. What if the blog owner is a member of the same experiment? Do they have to respond then?
  8. Does the experiment have to ask the blog owner for help?

Ok. So, here are my answers. These aren’t completely thought out, so feel free to call me out if I’m not being consistent. And these are my opinions below, no matter how strongly I state them.

  1. This is clearly unethical. You are violating something that you agreed to in the first place, voluntarily. Further, by doing this anonymously you are basically trying to get away without being accountable – so you are taking no responsibility for your actions – which is also unethical. The PR result depends, obviously, on what is posted. If the topic is interesting enough to the mainstream, articles will end up on the mainstream news sites. If this damages the credibility of an actual result when it is released then real harm has been done. It is not likely that it will damage the credibility within the field, however.
  2. For me this is more murky. You clearly have violated the agreement that you signed initially. But you have also made it clear who you were when you posted it – so you are taking responsibility and accepting the consequences for your actions. The first half you are not behaving ethically, but the second half you are. It seems the PR consequences are similar, except they will be much more personal because the press will be able to get in touch with you. A large faceless experiment, like DZERO or ATLAS, will have a much harder time countering this (people make better stories!).
  3. Ethically, I don’t think you are obligated to take it down if you are not affiliated with any experiment. That was someone else’s agreement, and not one that you signed up for. I follow the thinking of various places that deal with whistleblowers. Now, the blog owner may have their own set of ethical guidelines for the blog, for example, “I will not traffic in rumors,” and then ethically they should not make an exception for a particular post. But that is strictly up to them – they could just as easily say that “this blog traffics in rumors!” The PR aspect of this really depends, if the blog is up front about what it is, then the PR won’t reflect on it as much as it will reflect on the rumor. If the blog does something that violates its own guidelines – like normally it ignores rumors except in this particular one because it is a big one – then part of the PR will be focused back on them. This is a wash, in my opinion.
  4. If the blog was owned by a member of the same experiment then I do think they would be obligated to take it down. The blog owner, upon joining the experiment, agreed not to reveal secrets, and the blog is an extension of the person who made the agreement. From a PR perspective, this would put the blog owner in a fairly difficult position! First, most of us small-time blogs allow comments w/out waiting for approval, so it could be up for several hours before it gets taken down. Any of the RSS comment aggregators would easily have time to grab it before it disappeared. So, it would be out there for anyone with a bit of skill even if it had already been taken down. So the PR would, basically, be the same as the other case. But, if any press came to call the blog owner they would have to say “No Comment.” Ha!
  5. So, it is fine for the experiment to ask the blog owner for any identifiable information about the poster. They are not violating any of their ethics. The PR response, however, can vary dramatically. After the experiment asks, the blogger could respond “Yes” or “No”. And then everyone moves on. But the blogger could also post a copy of the request and say something like “This 3000 person scientific organization is putting pressure on my to reveal my sources. This is a clear suppression of free speech, etc. etc.” What happens next is anybody’s guess and really depends on the blogger’s reputation, their popularity, who picks it up and runs with it, etc. So, anything from forgotten to a PR nightmare for the experiment. For a blogger that wants to prove that they will keep their rumor sources confidential – and thus get more rumors, this could be a big plus. Add this to the likelihood that there is no identifiable information, this makes me conclude it isn’t worth it. Now, if the blogger is a member of the experiment, or the blogger is well known to individuals on the experiment, a small conversation can happen over the phone or in person to see if the blogger might be willing to help out.
  6. First, if the blogger is not a member of the experiment. In this case, I do not think there is any ethical reason for the blogger to respond. By the same token, I do not think the experiment can get bent-out-of-shape if the blogger declines to help. I don’t think there is any real PR aspect to this question (other than what was above). Something to keep in mind: depending on the severity of the leak, you may be ending or seriously affecting someone’s career (judge/jury/etc.) by giving up that technical information – which could be spoofed.
  7. Now, if the blogger was on the same experiment, then things get more tricky. Ethically, you agreed to keep your experiment’s secrets, but you didn’t agree to tattle tail on a fellow collaboration member. I feel like I’m on thin ice here, so any comments yes or no to this would be helpful – especially because I could see myself in this position! While that may be the case, the experiment could bring a huge amount of peer pressure to bear on the blog author if they are a member. This effect should not be underestimated.
  8. This may seem like an odd question. Think of it from this point of view. An internal document has just been leaked. You are one of 3000 people working hard on this experiment. Something that you’ve had no input into, and perhaps seriously disagree with, has been put out on the web. You are still bound by the agreement with the collaboration so you can’t counter why you think it is bad. You have to sand by, frustrated, as this document is discussed by everyone except the people it should be discussed by. Worse, what if this person who did the posting gets away with it!? There are no consequences to what they did? Worse, what if the collaboration changes the way it does internal reviews and physics in order to keep things more secret from even its own members to lessen the chances of another leak? Now the person doing the leak has seriously impacted your ability to work and nothing has happened to you. So, should the collaboration do all it can to track this leaker down? Whew. Yes. But what if tracking this person down causes more damage (like the free speech PR nightmare I mentioned above)? I have a lot of trouble answering this question. In isolation the answer to this is clearly yes. However, when the various possible outcomes are considered, it feels to me like it isn’t worth it.

One final thing. As far as I can see, it seems to me that no actual laws have been broken by any of the proposed actions. That is, you couldn’t sue in a court of law for any of the actions. There is no publically recognized contract, for example. Do people agree with that? Any key questions I missed that should be in the above list?

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Comments»

1. Gordon Wayne Watts - April 25, 2011

I disagree with your claim in #8, Dr. Watts, that a person would have no legal consequences:

For example, it is very common in advertisement fields for a spokesperson to enter a contract to give up their Free Speech rights: For example, the Verizon guy (who says: ‘Can you hear me now?’) can NOT discuss certain things now -even after he’s been released from his job (he’s unemployed now) –LEST HE BE SUED.

I don’t see your scenarios as any different.

Now, your other point about what an experiment could do if they are bound by silence but felt a need to expose a leak?

My answer: They were wronged (both in a legal sense and a moral sense –but the ‘practical’ sense may suggest its too much trouble).

SO, in conclusion, if an experiment had things leaked about them & they felt offended, they could do either of the following options:

1) Sue in a court that has jurisdiction and demand the release of info that would help identify the leaker.

2) Forgive the leaker -either due to benevolence and/or because it would be too much bad PR and/or possibly leak even more sensitive information.

IN SHORT: If a person gives their word to keep silent for a period of time, then they are:

a) Bound legally -as contracts CAN BE enforced in court.

b) Bound morally: There ARE still rights & wrongs.

c) Bound as a ‘practical’ matter since their reputation would suffer for talking (except in cases where they felt a need to stop a dangerous experiment to save a life –or prevent broad waste of public funds)

Am I wrong on any point?

2. Gordon Wayne Watts (I'm a different Gordon Watts) - April 25, 2011

Oh, I forgot to address the case of a blogger *not* affiliated with the experiment…

My bad! — OK, so what is expected of him/her?

Well, IMHO, if they know that private information was leaked, they have an ethical duty (even if not a legal one) to delete the post -and then report any personally identifiable data (like the IP address that posted it) to the aggrieved party.

You may think this is extreme or antiquated, but it’s similar IMO to the case where you drop your wallet (with LOADS of Monie$ in it!), and i find it…

Am I under duty to try & return your wallet to you?

Yes — morally – no legally — and as a practical matter, if I can do so easily, it would be in my ‘practical’ interests –but if you are out-of-state, and the wallet only had like a dollar in it -and nothing of value… different story.

Does that not seem reasonable.

3. gordonwatts - April 25, 2011

Hi Gordon… So the problem is I don’t think there is a legally binding contract. Nothing is ever signed, for example. It is closer to a “code of conduct” in the field. I’m 99% sure none of this has ever been tested in a court of law.

As for your second post – isn’t that a personal code of ethics? And note that you’ve made a judgement call in the end there. The physical wallet could be amazingly valuable to the person who lost it – their recently killed wife could have given it to them… But, your point is taken, if that is the code you are working by, then that you need to return the wallet and take down the post.

4. Gordon Wayne Watts - April 25, 2011

Actually, regarding deleting the post, I missed one ‘nuance': It might be unethical to delete it without *first* giving a copy to the aggreived party –since they were possibly harmed. (But publicly delete it I should!)

As far as the contractual matter:

Since I do not participate in these ‘collaberation / experiment’ things (I only got my Bachelor’s LOL), I am not an expert here, but I have heard somewhere that even a *verbal* contract is legally binding –and I definitely would agree with you that this is an untested or “gray” area of law.

Also, I have “some” legal knowledge: while I’m not a lawyer, I did nearly win that big Schiavo case -(much to the fright of liberals everywhere) –all the while opposing Jeb Bush on the issue of the feeding tube (also caring the daylights out of conservatives), so I’m “kinda like” a lawyer –and all those physics classes I took to get my double major with honors at FSU (not as many physics classes as you, mind you) pounded my brain to be scientific and analytical … now only if I could get a job in Biology, Chemistry, or genetics.

5. Gordon Wayne Watts - April 25, 2011

which reminds me… my most recent 2 videos on my Facebook ( http://Facebook.com/GordonWayneWatts ) show me:

1) lifting 585 pounds like an inch or 2 off a weight lifting rack ; and,

2) Then in mt most recent vid, I explain torque and stress using Since and Cosines –and since you’re a “real” phycisist, not just an ‘armchair phycisist’ like me, I wonder if you could give your opinion on my math:

(I claim that pressure on the legs in inversely related to the cosine of the anglle of each leg from verticl and that the torque must be corrected by a facotr involving the Sine of an ange -because the perfectly vertical weightlifter experiences NO torque)–

you wouldn’t mind looking at my math –at the bery bottom of my most recent Facebook vid, would you?

My facebook is ‘open’ even non-friends can look at it. –and it’s crossposted in Text form here:

http://gordonwaynewatts.com/notes-DeadliftExperiment.doc

or

http://gordonwatts.com/notes-DeadliftExperiment.doc

6. Peter Woit - April 25, 2011

I should make clear that no one at ATLAS has contacted me asking for help identifying the source of the leak. If they did, in this case I wouldn’t help them. I don’t think it’s my responsibility to help enforce their policies about what’s public and what’s private.

And yes, the long-standing official policy of my blog is that I do traffic in rumors, however only well-sourced ones. This one was well-sourced…

Other Gordon,

This isn’t like keeping money that belongs to someone else, in which case they can’t use it. This is about information, and the question of people’s right to stop others from knowing something that they know. A better analogy might be if someone anonymously posts a summary of a meeting between some politicians discussing what to do about Social Security. These may be preliminary discussions, and the people involved might be quite annoyed to see these publicized and their significance exaggerated in the press. But I see no argument at all that I should help them identify the anonymous poster if they come to me to complain.

7. Ignace - April 25, 2011

I’m amazed by how much focus everyone has put onto this ‘leak’ business. Yes, it’s unfortunate, but how has the field ‘truly’ been harmed. You want to focus on a REAL problem in the field, how about:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v472/n7343/full/472259b.html

This is far greater a sin that the entire physics community takes part in.

8. Gordon Watts - April 25, 2011

Ignace – the reason for the focus is because of how many people are really angry at this – from inside the field. The Ph.D. issue (granting more than there are academic positiosn) has been true since the start of the field, if not before. It is a problem, but it is a long-standing structural one – and very difficult to fix becuase there are so many moving parts (i.e. the # of universities affected by this financial crunch will alter the balence, for example). I would hope that most people are up front about this with students.

9. Ignace - April 25, 2011

Hi Gordon,

Thank you for the answer. But I guess just because the problem is old, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. In fact, given the damage it does to graduate students I would think the physics community would be far more in-arms to resolve the problem.

I would also hope that most faculty are up front with the situation. I’m surprised that people still agree to go into the field though, given how small a chance they will be able to make a career from it.

Since it is nice to get an idea from a faculty member on this, what do you tell your perspective graduate students about their chances to make a career in this field? Do you actually recruit them or just let them come to you and then tell them like it is? Personally, I would be hard for me to take a job if I knew that it had no prospect of developing into a career. I’m curious on the decision making process.

10. Gordon Wayne Watts, LAKELAND, Fla. - April 25, 2011

@ Peter Woit — that is an interesting analogy.

In my mind, I see your analogy as inapplicable iff (if and only if) the politicians who discussed the policy changes were bound to silence by some rule, law, or contractual agreement.

On the other hand, if no law or contractual agreement prohibits them from talking, then probably the only thing that could be deduced is that some bigmouth has a First amendment right -and that we should NOT complain or abridge him/her his/her rights to free speech / free press, etc.

In fact, many instances of politician discussions actually *prohibit* them from discussing anything private if it is about a policy matter — at least, here in Lakeland, Florida, I believe county and/or city commissioners are prohibited from discussing policy privately among themselves. While they can talk privately to constituents, if they talk among themselves, they must discuss policy at the public meetings -and open it to public debate.

I honestly don’t know how often the ‘iff’ condition applies -since I have not had the pleasure to work in collaboration to experiment.

OFF TOPIC: On a different (but very Physics oriented) subject, I was wanting to know if the Sines and Cosines analysis of weightlifting in the notes of most recent vid of my facebook (bottom half of the note –my Facebook is open to ALL -even if you’re not on my friends list) is sound per the laws of physics.

I explain that you can use Sines to make a factor correction for torque (weightlifter bends over at a certain angle to pick up weight) -since it depends on the angle as well as the feet and pounds applied –and that Cosines can be used to correct for additional stress when a weightlifter spreads his legs at a certain angle –approaching theoretical infinity as the spread goes out to 180 degrees. (Ouch!) Any input would be appreciated. (I felt guilty being another ‘Gordon Watts’ and not discussing physics at some point!, so I’m ‘doing my part to contribute’ to the field!)

PS: I tried to post that comment last time & it didn’t take –maybe I was getting ‘too talkative?’ (LOL -sorry if I was.!)

11. Peter Woit - April 25, 2011

In discussions with some people about this, one thing that recently occurred to me is that the whole discussion would be very different if this note actually was what its four authors claimed it to be. If this really was a highly believable result, I suspect people at ATLAS would not be happy about the news getting out early outside of their control, but would be too busy getting a paper/press release together and arguing about who would get to go to Stockholm to worry too much about what happened at my blog.

It’s possible that the sole motivation of the leaker was that he/she was convinced this was real and wanted to share the happy news with the world. Perhaps the main lesson people at ATLAS should draw from this is that distributing to 3000 people dramatic claims that go way beyond what can be solidly supported is a really bad idea.

12. Gordon Wayne Watts, Lakeland, Fla. - April 25, 2011

@ Peter – I went back and glanced at your blog, and I feel bad I used the term ‘Big Mouth’ to describe a person who leaks something:

Since scientists SHOULD have access to each others’ information to help facilitate collaboration (Teamwork!), it is actually *good* to share information.

But, there is a time and a place to keep things private — I guess if you need more time to confirm a theory, it’s best to get “solid facts” before you allow information to leak out — otherwise you’d be wasting other peoples’ time by “information overload.”

Also, I hate to admit it, but there is competition amongst scientists (I guess my BS double major w/ honors makes me a ‘low level’ scientist?) –and therefore, if your leaked info is used by someone else, maybe THEY can invent something and get credit that YOU deserve.

But I think you make a good point about *allowing* info to be leaked without reprise, Peter: After all, shouldn’t we all have access to all the latest data? Isn’t that what teamwork’s all above?

PS: Regarding the notes on my most recent Facebook vid (‘Deadlift experiment’) where I asked for y’alls’ input on my mathematical treatment using Sines/Cosines… could you weigh in here? My Facebook is clickable on my name above Facebook dot com/GordonWayneWatts

13. Gordon Watts - April 26, 2011

Peter – I suspect we will never know what the motivation of the poster is. Speculation is currently running wild. At this point I don’t think it is worth delving too deep. I think all of us can come up with plausable explainations.

And the latter half — this is something I SERIOUSLY fear. That ATLAS will start making rules based on the exception – which this leak very much is (just ask yourself how many analyses are on going now). ATLAS is huge – 3000 people – and in order to function we must trust each other at some level.

Actually preventing leaks is impossible. At the end of the day, science get done by people. Everyone needs access to the data – that is the most efficient way to get results out. We already have enough random passwords, grid certs, etc., that we have to fill out. If the people can’t keep it quiet, then it almost doesn’t matter what technological barriers we put in place – they won’t work.

The fault here is clearly with one person (or group or whatever) that posted to your blog.

14. SM - April 26, 2011

Anyway, to add to your statistics, here are my answers:

1) Unethical – although, as a member of 3 different collaborations I never was really made aware of any publicity policies. It was more one of those “everybody just knows” things. So while I agree it’s unethical, in my experience one could make a, “Well, I never really agreed to that” argument.
2) Just as unethical. Adding your name doesn’t change the ethics of doing something you agreed not to do.
3) Unaffiliated blog owner not obliged to take it down. Think WikiLeaks.
4) Affiliated blog owner…probably is obliged to take it down. Again, nothing I ever read/signed/agreed to said anything about aiding and abetting, so the “it’s murky” argument can be made.
5) Experiment certainly can ask.
6) I don’t think the blogger is obliged to reply with the information. Certainly not if they aren’t even part of the collaboration.
7) Still no. Not only is the non-publicizing policy sometimes murky, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any “you gotta rat people out” policy. If I were the blogger I would probably respectfully decline, whether I were in the collaboration or not. I don’t want to get in the business of tattle-tailing.
8) The experiment should be careful about how they might use information someone gives them. What is to prevent the blogger giving you misleading or incorrect information? If your evidence against a collaboration member is just the say-so of a blogger who either is incorrect or has an axe to grind, you might really hurt yourself. If you have other evidence, then you don’t need the blogger’s evidence anyway.

My overall feeling on this is that a collaboration shouldn’t even bother themselves with the whole thing. If asked for comment, the official spokesperson should just say, “Our policy is that we do not release or comment on analyses that have not been reviewed by the collaboration as a whole.” Done.

PR is actually pretty easy. If the organization has done something bad, say, “We’ve done something bad and here’s how we are addressing it.” If you haven’t done anything bad, don’t start. :)

If there seems to be an endemic problem of pre-release of analyses or this is a case of importance, an internal investigation should probably be done to find out the whos and whys. Collaboration response could range from nothing to some serious talking to the perp to removal from positions of influence to removal from the collaboration. That said, the more serious responses probably can’t reasonably happen unless there is a clearly formal policy that everyone has had to indicate acceptance of. I have never seen that done…is it starting to happen now?

One monkey-wrench I wanted to throw into the issue…what if you feel the collaboration you are a member of is doing something unethical? For sake of argument, let’s say you’ve tried all the tricks you can think of to get the collaboration to address this misdeed internally and gotten nowhere and the collaboration is just using the “don’t publicize” policy to hide dirty secrets?

Are you obliged to publicize?

15. Ética profissional em Física « Ars Physica - April 26, 2011

[...] The ethics and public relations implications of asking for help [...]

16. Sarai - April 26, 2011

1. This is a legal or statutory violation, but depending on the content, it might not be an ethical one. For example, information that would allow technology that would benefit the public cheaply being suppressed for commercial reasons would be something that would present an ethical challenge to some. On the other hand, in the rational world of physics, this would hardly seem a likely argument.

2. I don’t agree that stating your name makes it any more or less ethical than number one. It would be quite easy for you to be identified if the information leak was serious enough. On the other hand, I would respect you more as a person if you put your name down because you are indeed willing to take responsibility for what you are doing instead of hiding behind the curtain of anonymity.

3. In no way would the blog owner be obligated to do anything unless they are approached by a representative of either party. This would normally launch me into a discussion on my views on net neutrality, but to summarise: the owner of the content and the holder of the content are different and have reached no agreement with regards to the content. Unless contact is made by either the owner or the giver of the content regarding whether or not the distribution of information is appropriate, the blog owner is under no obligation.

3&4. The only situation in which I think this might be difficult is when the information is regarded as the personal information of the blog owner\poster. If the article is stating an opinion or relating a story, are they violating the agreement, and if so, to what extent? Are circumstances surrounding an experiment subject to the agreement and how many degrees of separation are allowed before the agreement becomes nullified? Could other parties have had access to the same information through different pathways and what would the effects have been had said information been made public? It’s tricky. I don’t think the blog owner is obliged to do anything – that said, I do think that the blog owner is completely liable in the same way that the poster is if they are involved directly in the experiment.

5. I see nothing wrong with approaching the blogger for information regarding the poster but I see no reason why the blog owner or poster would be required to respond. The only circumstances under which they should be forced to reveal any information is if legal proceedings are brought against them. More fundamentally than free speech is the confidentiality of sources – confidentiality in general.

6&7. Again, they are under no obligation. On the other hand, they should also be allowed to use their discretion. Again, only in the event of legal proceedings would the blog owner be mandated to release any information. If the blog owner is affiliated with the experiment, they take the same risks as if they were the poster – in which case it really depends on the processes in place as documented by policy.

8. Do they have to? Not at all – provided they seek legal council on the issue, they will probably be able to at least ensure that they acquire the identity of the poster. The thing is – the poster might not be the person who violated the agreement, they may have taken the information in good faith, regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with the experiment.

The whole question seems to boil down to whether or not blame should be assigned and where – although correct me if I am wrong. I think it really boils down to the agreement and relationship between the experiment and the poster. We all try to imagine that ethics are somehow utilitarian but in most cases, exceptions are the norm – a valuable researcher who has broken the rules is still a valuable researcher. Fundamentally, it boils down to whether or not legal proceedings are instituted and whether or not anyone is prosecuted or required to pay damages. And *that* depends on who has more legal clout. It is always a grey area – nothing is hard and fast. Too many variables.

17. Gordon Wayne Watts, Lakeland, Fla - aka the other Gordon Watts - April 26, 2011

Comment #14 did not appear in my email notification like the others.

Anyhow, I clicked the link, and, with the help of an online translator, I got a few funny comments, which I shall paste below -translated from Portugese into English.

original source: http://arsphysica.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/etica-profissional-em-fisica/

source: http://www.microsofttranslator.com/bv.aspx?ref=Internal&from=&to=en&a=http://arsphysica.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/etica-profissional-em-fisica/

Professional ethics in physics

“”Warning, warning! Post on politics! Pay attention in the name of the person who wrote the post, because it is the bullshit written below. The other editors of this blog may have completely different opinions of what is written here.

I see some people defending the leak based on thesis of freedom of expression. That anyone should have the right to speak what you want. If you really want to defend this thesis, also has to defend the thesis that these people have to be expelled from the collaboration. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to work.””

my thoughts: The blogger here makes good sense –people have a legal right to free speech -and the experiment has a legal right to expel them and kick them out.

18. Corey - April 27, 2011

Well I haven’t read all the comments, but I pretty much agree with everything you said, Gordon.

On #7, I would say it depends on the situation — if there’s some real injustice in the experiment that only an inside whistle-blower could reveal, then ‘no’. In any other situation, I would say ‘yes’.

But personally, I don’t really view blogs as real press. I view them as hearsay / rumor mills, so I don’t have a problem with pressuring them to reveal their sources. I think the potential PR scandal that could arise by doing so is the appropriate “check & balance” to the over-application of that pressure.

I also don’t think the leaker should be able to be sued. After all, scientific work is public work. BUT I do think they should be expelled from the experiment. And I think the difficulty of salvaging their scientific career after that is appropriate.

19. Charlie - April 27, 2011

The leaker needn’t have been part of the experiment. Just as the Anonymous Coward on slashdot (reposted to Woit’s blog) had access to the report sitting on a department printer, so will others.

If the leak was from a collaboration member, they must have, at least fleetingly, felt that they had more to gain than lose, by some metric. Persecuting the leaker may not prevent future ones; if so, there’s no sense in revenge.

When it comes to passing along scientific rumors, the golden rule may provide some guidance?

20. Manuela Cirilli - April 29, 2011

Hi Gordon,
I’m pretty much on your same line. Let me throw in one more bit of information: all CERN users (not only CERN employers!) are bound by the CERN Code of Conduct. The details are available on the CERN website, but two points I think are relevant for this discussion:

a. As CERN contributors, we safeguard confidential information, documents or data, and ensure
that such material in our possession is properly protected.

So you might want to add another case in between 3 and 4: you are not affiliated to the experiment but you are a CERN user…what would be your interpretation of the code of conduct in this case? To me, it means that you should protect the confidential information since it is CERN protected material; i.e., you delete the post.

b. As CERN contributors, we respect the privacy of others and protect personal information given
to us in confidence.

Does this mean that you should protect the identity of someone posting anonimously on your blog? Here I guess I need a lawyer to answer.

21. Gordon Watts - April 29, 2011

Corey – Right. You are bringing up the long standing (at least in America – perhaps in other parts of the world but I’m not as familiar) of the whistle blower. In fact, there are laws here in the USA to protect people doing that – but they are to protect people who report law breaking by their employers. So I don’t think any of those laws would approach here.

Charlie – certianly true they needn’t have been a member. But given the rest of the context, I would consider it highly likely.

Manuela – ah, interesting. i’d not considered that. I wonder if “confidential” in that agreement includes things that the experiments deam as confidential. My guess is that what they mean and what ATLAS means are different things. But it would interesting to know if there is any overlap.

22. Manuela Cirilli - April 29, 2011

Uhm, I would list everything password-protected as confidential – what do you think? So, since the document was on the official CERN repository, with access only to ATLAS members with their own password, the meaning of confidential should be the same both for ATLAS and for CERN.

It’s interesting to look at the FAQ on the Code of Conduct, there’s a couple of issues also about blogging (and also on what you should do if you want to publish a book that you’ve been writing in your spare time!).

23. Gordon Watts - May 6, 2011

I get that – it would be common sense. But I would bet that CERN has a more specific definition at the moment.

24. Manuela Cirilli - May 25, 2011

Hi Gordon, an update on confidentiality (from the CERN Bulletin): http://cdsweb.cern.ch/journal/CERNBulletin/2011/21/News%20Articles/1352172?ln=en


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