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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.

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?


Scientific Integrity April 22, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in physics, physics life, politics, press, science.

… means not telling only half the result

… means not mis-crediting a result

… means an obligation to society to not falsify results

… means not making false claims to gain exposure

… means respecting your fellow scientist and their results

means not talking about things that aren’t public (or, say, that haven’t undergone an internal review)

… means playing by the rules you agreed to when you enter into a collaboration

It means being a scientist!

Integrity is more important that ever given how much the public eye is focused on us in particle physics.

Update: I should mention that this post was authored with Alison Lister.

Global Entry–Just Get It April 20, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.
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A month or two ago I was traveling back from Geneva with a friend of mine. Kaori and I were on a flight that was late – about an hour late. We landed at IAD and really had to race to make our connections (we had less than an hour). We raced to immigration and I got in line. Looking around – I couldn’t find her… looking over to the side, I saw her at some kiosk… in about a minute or so she was racing through to the baggage pick up. Me… I hung out in the line for about 5 minutes.

She was using the Global Entry program. Having signed up and used it for my most recent flight… I’m a fan. It is fairly cheap – $100 bucks for 5 years. You do have to give up finger prints and picture to the US government – as far as I know that is the first set of finger prints any government agency has on record for me – so that was a little weird. As an example, on my last flight into IAD the plane doors were opened at 4:10 pm. At 4:22 pm I was in the X-Ray line. This included more than 5 minutes of walking since our plane was waaaay down the terminal. You use a kiosk instead of a person in the immigration area. I’d say it took the same amount of time as dealing with an officer who decided not to ask any question and if there were no lines – about 90 seconds or so. Extra bonus: no filling out those @*#&@ blue custom forms (there is an abbreviated version on the kiosk). And, when you go through customs, there is a separate line that lets you cut to the front (at least, in IAD). You just hand them a bit of paper that the immigration kiosk printed out and you are done.

I could imagine there are a number of circumstances that don’t make this worth it. If you always travel with kids under 14 you can’t use this (well, the kids can’t use this), if you always check baggage the time saved will be a small fraction of your total time, and I think there are only about 20 airports that support it (these are where your international ports-of-entry). Oh, and if you like watching people while standing in lines to relax after that long flight being cooped up… then this isn’t for you either.

My flight into IAD earlier this week was over an hour late. I had less than an hour to connect. A student of mine and I were both on the plane and both were on the connecting flight to Seattle. Neither of us had bags checked. The Seattle flight was in D29 in IAD (which means a long walk). I did a brisk walk and made it before boarding started. He had to sprint some of the way and made it after everyone had already boarded – but he still made it. BTW – I was also able to skip to the front of the X-Ray line which can be killer in IAD because I’d been upgraded on that last leg. That probably saved me an additional 10 minutes or so on this trip.

So… I’d recommend getting this if you flight internationally with any frequency. It definitely made that part of my trip quicker and, thus, more enjoyable!

As a side note… WHY don’t they design the airport so that if you don’t have to pickup your luggage you don’t have to go thought security again?

Cherry Blossoms April 7, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in life, University of Washington.
1 comment so far


It happens once a year, of course: Cherry Blossom Season. You can find it all over – Japan is famous for it. But back at the University of Washington we have our own little grove of Yoshino Cherry trees on the Quad. For the two weeks or so the place becomes a bit of a tourist destination – it is packed with people. Some just sitting and reading, but most walking around and snapping pictures. I went a little crazy this year. If you love this stuff, you can find it all over the web. Here are links to some of the stuff I’ve taken:

  • Pictures from a cloudy day on flickr.
  • A large panorama view. This is probably the easiest one to get an understanding of what the square looks like.
  • A giant 451 photo 3D reconstruction (a photosynth). I’m really looking forward to the technology (recently previewed) where you can walk around with a video camera and that is enough to build one of these!
  • A desktop theme pack for Windows 7. If you like having your background image change every 30 minutes to a different view of cherry trees, well, this is for you!

Enough till next year!

Jumping the Gun April 4, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Uncategorized.

The internet has come to physics. Well, I guess CERN invented the internet, but, when it comes to science, our field usually moves at a reasonable pace – not too fast, but not (I hope) too slow. That is changing, however, and I fear some of the reactions in the field.

The first I heard about this phenomena was some results presented by the PAMELA experiment. The results were very interesting – perhaps indicating dark matter. The scientists showed a plot at a conference to show where they were, but explicitly didn’t put the plot into any public web page or paper to indicate they weren’t done analyzing the results or understanding their systematic errors. A few days later a paper showed up on arXiv (which I cannot locate) using a picture taken during the conference while the plot was being shown. Of course, the obvious thing to do here is: not talk about results before they are ready. I and most other people in the field looked at that and thought that these guys were getting a crash course in how to release results. The rule is: you don’t show anything until you are ready. You keep it hidden. You don’t talk about it. You don’t even acknowledge the existence of an analysis unless you are actually releasing results you are ready for the world to get its hands on and play with it as it may.

I’m sure something like that has happened since, but I’ve not really noticed it. But a paper out on the archives on April 1 (yes) seems to have done it again. This is a paper on a Z’ set of models that might explain a number of the small discrepancies at the Tevatron. A number of the results they reference are released and endorsed by the collaborations. But there is one source that isn’t – it is a thesis: Measurement of WW+WZ Production Cross Section and Study of the Dijet Mass Spectrum in the l-nu + Jets Final State at CDF (really big download). So here are a group of theorists, basically, announcing a CDF result to the world. That makes a bit uncomfortable. What is worse, however, is how they reference it:

In particular, the CDF collaboration has very recently reported the observation of a 3.3 excess in their distribution of events with a leptonically decaying W+- and a pair of jets [12].

I’ve not seen any paper released by the CDF collaboration yet – so that above statement is definitely not true. I’ve heard rumors that the result will soon be released, but they are rumors. And I have no idea what the actual plot will look like once it has gone through the full CDF review process. And neither do the theorists.

Large experiments like CDF, D0, ATLAS, CMS, etc. all have strict rules on what you are allowed to show. If I’m working on a new result and it hasn’t been approved, I am not allowed to even show my work to others in my department except under a very constrained set of circumstances*. The point is to prevent this sort of paper from happening. But a thesis, which was the source here, is a different matter. All universities that I know of demand that a thesis be public (as they should). And frequently a thesis will show work that is in progress from the experiment’s point of view – so they are a great way to look and see what is going on inside the experiment. However, now with search engines one can do exactly the above with relative ease.

There are all sorts of potential for over-reaction here.

On the experiment’s side they may want to put restrictions on what can be written in a thesis. This would be punishing the student for someone else’s actions, which we can’t allow.

On the other hand, there has to be a code-of-standards that is followed by people writing papers based on experimental results. If you can’t find the plot on the experiment’s public results pages then you can’t claim that the collaboration backs it. People scouring the theses for results (as you can bet there will be more now) should get a better understanding of the quality level of those results: sometimes they are exactly the plots that will show up in a paper, other times they are an early version of the result.

Personally, I’d be quite happy if results found in theses would stimulate conversation and models – and those could be published or submitted to the archive – but then one would hold off making experimental comparisons until the results were public by the collaboration.

The internet is here – and this information is now available much more quickly than before. There is much less hiding-thru-obscurity than there has been in the past, so we all have to adjust. Smile

* Exceptions are made for things like job interviews, students presenting at national conventions, etc.

Update: CDF has released the paper