ethics-in-scientific-and-technical-communication_weber

ethics-in-scientific-and-technical-communication_weber -...

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Printed from the Technical Editor's Eyrie, http://www.jeanweber.com/ 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.
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