Scientific and technical communication and the ethics involved

Ethics columns are normally published by the Society for Technical Communication in the USA. Readers respond to a description of a typical workplace setting and then the national newsletter publishes their opinions.

The newspaper content breaks down ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ and applies this to real life situations. For instance, it can deal with situations like when someone’s rights are infringed for exposing information that someone in power was hiding.

In my opinion, an individual should be able to carry the burden of his or her actions regardless of the situation. That’s the only way he or she can be considered ethical.

Is legal identical to ethical?

The word legal does not mean the same thing ethical. For instance, some parts of the world still allow wife-battering, slavery was legal in parts of the USA at one time, the law is often late in matters concerning technology because it changes so fast and the Australian law was known for seriously restricting women’s rights.

Some of the scientific topics dealt with include medicine and genetics. In today’s world, information can be distributed and copied more quickly and therefore it’s quite difficult to filter and police intellectual property rights. However, we should always practice ethics even before the law catches up.

How to treat colleagues, subordinates and others

Plagiarism versus acknowledgement

This involves people in powerful positions pretending to be the original owners of certain ideas whereas they actually belong to someone in a lower position. Historically, women have received the shorter end of this stick, being at the mercy of their male superiors.

Harassment and disrespecting of someone’s office

This involves behaviors that are meant at keeping women in lower positions. For instance, it can involve consistent and premeditated misrepresentation or misinterpretation of an individual’s actions.

Handling interviewees, experimental subjects, etc

Experimental interviewees and subjects should be handled with ethical behavior and also be offered informed consent.

Dumb vs spiteful actions

Most ethical misconducts, no matter how awful, are usually genuine mistakes. Unless an individual has a history of malicious actions, it would be unfair to assume that his or her action was intentional.

An individual is likely to be caught up in a situation that forces him to hide the truth in order to protect another person from being hurt. Not everyone will agree with a certain decision since people have different opinions.

Telling it as it is

This part should be more straightforward:

  • You should not lie about data.
  • You should not present inaccurate facts.

The following are harder to perform and hence less straightforward, they include:

  • You should be able to tell the difference between opinions and facts.
  • Make a habit of confirming the facts.
  • You should not take an expert’s opinion as the gospel truth because they also make errors.

Rhetoric – determining what to say

Some techniques can still be used to alter the message, either consciously or unconsciously, even if the facts exist. The techniques can include:

Incorporating loaded words

These are words that are used by the conveyer of the information to insinuate that the original speaker meant something different. For instance, a term like ‘admitted’ instead of ‘said’ makes someone look like he would prefer to hide something.

Using biased language

The language used should not put down a certain group of people.

Delicacy of meaning as shaped by the sentence structure

This is when words follow an order to mean something; the subtlety of the meaning is affected when the same words are rearranged; people can understand it to mean something different. Here is an example:

John’s music is slow, deep and catchy.

John’s music is catchy, deep and slow.

From the first sentence, one is left to think that although John’s music is slow it is very good. The second one leaves you with the impression that although the music is excellent, it is too slow.


One should avoid crossing the ethical barrier when saying dramatic things meant to capture the attention of the audience. This has some similarity to the use of loaded words.

Using a misleading notion that is logical

This involves presenting information in a manner that is meant to suit one’s wishes. It can be unintentional but at times it is deliberate. Some examples can include jumping into conclusions and presenting something as proof when it is only evidence.

How much detail is enough?

Scientific and technical writers often have to weigh how much weight they should give a certain topic. The writer normally uses information that is necessary and that the readers can easily understand. Ideally, a writer should break down a technical topic to match the level of the readers. Sometimes the writer can use this power to hide information that he doesn’t want to disseminate; this is unethical.

For instance, a writer will focus on giving information about how a computer program like Microsoft office is used instead of how it works. This is because many people only want to understand that; however, the writer can direct the readers who want the technical details to a manual that will guide them.

The writer normally has a harder time figuring out what to include and leave when dealing with a summary of results in Environmental Impact Statements or in scientific papers/ studies in the press.

To advocate or to be objective?

Advocacy is used in some technical and scientific communication to urge people to take a certain course of action. Differing opinions should be cited in a discussion paper on the causes and prevention of skin cancer. The paper should also provide references.

Majority of the information about medical and recreational marijuana is criticized for not being ‘objective.’ In my opinion, there is no clear-cut answer whether the substance is good or bad since the issue is down to one’s opinion.

The STC code for communicators

As a technical communicator, I am aware that I play a huge role in determining how well ideas are understood since I am the link between creators of ideas and the users. I am devoted to maintaining the highest standards of ethics in this field.

I recognize that people who read, hear or see my communication spend their time and effort. I am also aware of the cost of communicating and developing those ideas and therefore I value the worth of the ideas I am disseminating.

For that reason, I know that it’s my duty to disseminate technical information clearly, truthfully and economically.

My obligation to ethical behavior and professional excellence means that I will:

  • Have a preference for a direct and simple expression of ideas.
  • Take full responsibility for how well my audience comprehends my message.
  • Use visuals and language with care.
  • Consistently work on improving competence in my profession.
  • Encourage an environment that attracts talented individuals to careers in technical communication and a climate that encourages the exercise of professional judgement.
  • Put aside my own need for self-expression and concentrate on satisfying the audience’s need for information.
  • Respect the opinion of colleagues since a communication problem may have more than one solution.

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