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13 Professional Ethics

Dianne Prost O'Leary
Last modified October 12, 2016.

In this section we consider some of the ``rules of the game." Some of these are obvious to most of us, but some might be surprising due to cultural differences or lack of consideration. Further resources can be found in Section 15.12.

The purpose of ethical standards is to provide an implicit foundation upon which human interactions can proceed smoothly. They answer questions such as

The next five subsections address each of these questions, and related issues, in turn.

13.1 Intellectual Property

In some cultures it has been acceptable to take another person's work and present it as your own. For instance, many Baroque music masterpieces are built upon musical themes ``borrowed" without explicitly giving credit.

In current Western culture, this is unacceptable, whether it involves music, ideas, or words, and we define the taking of someone's words or ideas as plagiarism. (It was particularly disheartening to discover that someone had plagiarized this discussion of ethics!) Since ideas and words represent creative effort and have intellectual value, there is a well-defined system of property rights. Stealing words or ideas is theft, just as surely as stealing automobiles, and sanctions can be quite serious.

The consequences of plagiarism might include an F in a course, expulsion from a graduate program, or banning from having any of your works published in a journal.

Patent rights must also be respected. If a device or idea is patented, it should not be used in your work unless you obtain the necessary permission.

People with a reputation for not giving due credit to other researchers generally find it hard to find collaborators and people who will write letters of recommendation for them.

13.2 Academic Integrity

The university system of education is built upon a high level of trust that students and faculty will be honest in their dealings with each other. It breaks down quickly if this honesty is lacking.

Here are some actions that violate the trust, along with the definitions given in the University of Maryland Code of Academic Integrity. Some of the examples are taken from an old University of Maryland Student Guide to Academic Integrity.

It is also a violation of integrity to help someone else in such actions for example, by lending your homework paper to someone else, letting someone copy your answers in an exam, revealing exam questions to people preparing for an exam, helping someone to break into a colleague's computer files, etc.

Such violations of trust are taken quite seriously at universities and the consequences can include an F in a course or expulsion from the university.

You should make yourself familiar with the code of academic integrity at your university.

13.3 Use of Computer Facilities

Each university has had to think very carefully about the ethics involved in the use of computer facilities, and most now have a formal document defining acceptable and unacceptable use. The issues to balance include free speech, communication of research without unnecessary obstacles, and responsible attention to law.

Here are a few examples of activities that are universally prohibited:

Again, these are serious matters and are usually dealt with either by suspension of computer privileges, expulsion from the university, or legal charges.

You should make yourself familiar with the code of computer use at your university.

13.4 Human Relations

The United States is not alone in its history of discrimination toward large groups of people based on race, religion, or other factors, but the legacy of these actions continues to be divisive. In an attempt to redress past wrongs and prevent future ones, the United States has built perhaps the most complicated system of laws and regulations in existence, many of them contradictory to some extent.

Rather than try to understand every fine point (e.g., when are distinctions based on mental ability discriminatory?), it is perhaps easier to be guided by two basic principles that motivated the laws:

Again, these issues are tied up in a tangle of laws. If you run into trouble, talk to a trusted colleague and check the human relations policy at your university.

13.5 Professional Integrity

Professional integrity encompasses a wide variety of responsibilities. Here are a few of them.

See Section 15.12 for pointers to the ACM Code of Ethics, the AMS Code of Ethics, and others.

13.6 Values

``Some people live to work; others work to live." Whether your job is your greatest joy in life or just a duty, it is worth reflecting on whether what you do at work contributes to making the world better. Maybe your work won't win a Nobel Prize, a Turing Award, or a Fields Medal, but you can use some of your creative energy to see that your efforts have some positive value. When all is said and done, your non-scholarly contributions might far outweigh your scholarly ones if you encouraged an at-risk student, wrote a clear textbook, helped a more junior colleague, organized a conference that catalyzed new research, or made a staff member's life a little easier. Whatever your values, bring them to work.

next up previous contents
Next: 14 Some Gender Pitfalls Up: gradstudy Previous: 12 Careers in Government   Contents
Dianne O'Leary 2016-10-12