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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?