Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blogger ethics: existing codes I

The Science Blogging Ethics Wiki breaks this issue of science blogger ethics into six areas (see previous post). The logical place to start is with the first one: what are the existing codes? Three are listed:
Tim O'Reilly's Blogger Code of Ethics drew a lot of attention - and criticism - when it was posted last year. Given O'Reilly's prominence in the Geek community, it's no surprise that he had a lot of impact. He had seven principles:
  1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
  2. We won't say anything online that we wouldn't say in person.
  3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.
  4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
  5. We do not allow anonymous comments.
  6. We ignore the trolls.
  7. If "anything goes", there should be a "free for all" badge
The idea of taking responsibility for your own words is pretty much a given, if you're talking about "ethical conduct". But taking responsibility for comment "we allow"? I'm not so sure about that. To begin with, since recent rulings have said that you aren't legally responsible for comments, why say that you are? It's probably wise to delete posts that appear to libel someone. It's worthwhile to set some level of civility for discussions on your blog. But within the boundaries of your code of conduct, you shouldn't claim "responsibility" for your posts. If you did, then you would delete any comments you disagree with. Reading the principle as a whole, it has merit, but I feel that principles like these could far too easily create fora of the Uncommon Descent/Conservapedia model.

Not saying things online that we wouldn't say in person...that depends on whether we are the kind of person who speaks their mind in person. Don't say anything online that you wouldn't want to "own" in real life. Sure. But quite frankly, if I met George W. Bush tomorrow, I would be polite. I wouldn't tell him that he's made a mess of the country. But that shouldn't mean that I should refrain from criticising the policies of the Bush administration online. The third point, about "connecting privately" before responding publicly is closely entwined. In the context of scientific communication, it make sense to say what you think about a paper. Science works through open communication - if you see a flaw in a paper, why not blog about it? It seems like these principles would lead to a "speak no evil" situation. What if I see a flaw in a paper, and I approach the author privately and convince him or her of the flaw, and she or he "corrects" the error...only to have it end up that I was the one who was mistaken, or to have me convince the person of a suboptimal solution? Take responsibility for what you write, speak out in the open, and be prepared to be wrong.

I can't fault the "take action when someone is unfairly attacking another...though I think it clashes with numbers 2 & 3. Given the half-life of posts online, by the time you have initiated private discussions with the attacker, the matter is stale. In addition, of course, the victim of the attacks is left out in the open.

I can't agree with the idea of forbidding anonymous comments. It's one thing to let someone hide behind anonymity to attack others. It's quite another to require that a person "out" themselves to us before we post their comments. And, of course, "valid" email addresses are dime-a-dozen, so all we are doing is creating the illusion of not allowing anonymity. And what does that really achieve?

And finally "we ignore trolls". Generally good advice, but sometimes it's more fun to toy with trolls.

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