Monday, October 09, 2006

Theory Confidential

I hate to keep secrets but in our field much of what we discuss should be kept confidential as much as possible. What do we need to keep quiet about?
  • Recommendation Letters. Should only be read by during the recruiting process and never by the candidate except as required by law. If someone other than the candidate asks you for a recommendation you shouldn't even mention to the candidate that you were asked.
  • Referee Reports. While the reports themselves are furnished to the author, the identity of the referees must be kept secret. Any discussion between the referees and authors should go through the editor.
  • Committees. Any discussion in a program committee (or any other kind of committee) should remain closed except as agreed upon in the committee. This allows the committee members to speak freely. In a PC you shouldn't even mention whether a paper was submitted.
  • NSF Panels. You should not disclose any discussion during an NSF panel, or even the fact that you were a panelist.
  • Salaries. You can announce your own salary but you shouldn't mention other people's salaries. Exceptions for surveys and states that require that the public have access to the salaries of all of their employees including state university professors. Update: I've just been told I am not allowed to publicly announce my salary as a University of Chicago employee. Apparently the employer can decide the appropriate policy for salary disclosure in the US.
  • Personal Information. Disabilities, Illnesses physical and mental, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Marriage, Children, Religion, Race and other related issues except as necessary or as already publicly known.
  • Email and Personal Discussions. You shouldn't reveal research or other discussions with someone else without their permission.
So what can you talk about? Anything made public, on a web page, in writing or in "public" is fair game. After all we bloggers do need stuff to write about.

If you truly want things you say to remain private then don't say it. With many theorists having loose lips and the minimal security of email you cannot count on the fact that what you say that should not be spread will remain unspread.


  1. Lance, have you been working for the secret service are you just trying to build up a passionate discussion?

  2. In some countries universities ask their faculty to pass a medical examination as a part of the tenure process.

  3. A: “Who is your advisor?”
    B: “Lance Fortnow.”
    A: “Isn’t he that guy that writes the computational complexity blog?”
    B: “I am not at liberty to disclose the gender of my advisor by his or her explicit comments on the aforementioned blog; however, I can say my advisor does write the blog as it is published on the web.”

  4. (*) If someone other than the candidate asks you for a recommendation you shouldn't even mention to the candidate that you were asked.

    Not true by default, imho.
    Unless I promise to keep something secret (which is the case in some of the situations you mention), I may tell anything I know to anybody.

    "Someone asks you for [whatever]" \subseteq "anything I know" => (*) does not hold.

    What is "ethically questionable", btw, is when someone other than the candidate asks you for a recommendation.

  5. It's interesting to hear that U Chicago doesn't want you to announce your salary. Are you also not allowed to tell colleagues within the same department?

    Berkeley salary scales are published. I'm not sure if individual professors' salaries are published as well.

  6. How about job offers - are those to be kept private or can you discuss them? Are rules different for pending v. accepted v. rejected ones?


  7. In some countries universities ask their faculty to pass a medical examination as a part of the tenure process.

    Does it include a mental exam ? And if so, which outcome (pass/fail) is prefered ?

  8. At my public university (as with most I think) salaries are public info. At times, they have even published on the web.

  9. NSF Panels. You should not disclose any discussion during an NSF panel, or even the fact that you were a panelist.

    Is an NSF panel a review board for a single grant, or do they look at several grants? If the latter, it seems to me that this should be public information, just like editorial boards are. There is no fear of retribution, since you'd never know who voted against and who voted in favor.

  10. It is always important to protect confidentiality in professional matters, just like it is important to guard government secrets. However, when something goes amiss, and is clearly unfair, then confidentiality is no longer required. For example, if you serve on an NSF funding panel and see that people are being discriminated against, why would you not make that public? That is, after all, government money. Or if you think that someone is being unfairly paid, why would you not divulge your salary? Too much secrecy protects people who do creepy, illicit things. If they knew that bad behaviour would be made public, then this is one way to regulate behaviour and make sure people are treated fairly. If I think someone behaved unethically--either in a panel or in letter writing, etc.--I would have no qualms making that public.

  11. Tee hee.

    What do you think about this, then?

  12. Too much secrecy protects people who do creepy, illicit things.

    NSF panel secrecy makes sense before the meeting, to avoid external pressure. After the fact NSF panel-secrecy reduces accountability, just as anon10 said.

  13. For professors from Iowa State, UofIowa, and Northern Iowa their salaries are public record:

    The highest paid are the basketball and football coaches followed by medical school professors. Tenured CS profs seem to make over 100k. It's sad to see that there are still wage gaps in certain departments based on gender...

  14. I think that anyone who benefits from public funds, such as NSF, should have their salary made public (as well as the details of how the grant is spent made public), since no public funds should support discrimination. One way that MIT women professors were found to be discriminated against in the recent MIT report (about five years ago?) was that they were found to have lower salaries. Perhaps this would not have been an issue if the salaries were made public, i.e. the women could have figured out immediately that they were being discriminated against.

  15. A lot of rules are there so that discussion could happen freely and a lot of rules are there for self protection. For an example, NSF panelist are told that if they disclose they were panelist then their confidentiality can't be guaranteed. Since a good fraction of proposals are rejected, disclosing that a person is panelist the person is hurting self.

    I personally do not believe in personal protection. We should be mature enough that a panelist's opinion could be different than the investigator's opinion. So why have bad feelings against panelist. For an example, do we get bad feelings against PC members?

    I also find it non-optimal when the most suitable expert takes an excuse of conflict. Some close conflicts like he/she is spouse/student/advisor is okay but some distant conflicts like he/she is a colleague is not okay. Strangely enough some people even take conflicts like "it beats my result so ...". In the process the paper is left without an expert opinion and may get rejected with higher probablity, sort of satisfying the potentially conflicting goal of the reviewer.

    But not many people thinks as long as the action aligns with the majority.

  16. Maybe its my socialist tendencies creeping through but it really irks me about some UofC's employment policies, such as not allowing the release of salaries. I was once told it is called a yellow jacketing clause (probably unionist slang), and is used by businesses to control their employees. By not allowing your employees to discuss their salary you are able to keep them quiet about potential discontent. Interestingly enough this policy is used by much of private education in America, I would guess because of the impact of teacher's unions across the country.

    It is one matter when you keep secrets out of respect of a person's dignity, wholly another when it is about control. Most of these issues fall in the first category but I sometimes wonder.

  17. The NSF exhortation not to reveal that one is on a panel (either before or afterward) is not primarily a matter of protecting panelists so that discussions can be free and open. It is primarily a matter of the NSF trying to protect the peer review process from criticism by Congress and others. They are concerned at least as much about positive decisions as negative ones since they involve spending money.

    In one year researcher A might be on a panel that reviews a proposal from researcher B and in a later year the tables might be turned. They want to make sure there is no quid pro quo in which, with the knowledge researcher A's role, researcher B feels obligated to fund researcher A to return the favor, or in which researcher A expecting the later obligation compromises the earlier decision.

    Post-panel secrecy about participation is not for the protection of panelists. It is a way for NSF to say that they are not so reliant on panelists' integrity.