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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Should We Have a TCS Ethics Board?

We sometimes hear of the (rare) scientist who fakes data or results of experiments. In theoretical computer science one cannot fake a theorem, particularly an important result that will attract close scrutiny before publication in a conference or journal. But that doesn't mean we don't have academic improprieties from outright plagiarism to heated arguments over who should receive credit for a result.

If these issues involve submissions to a particular conference, journal or grant they generally get resolved through the program committee chair, editor-in-chief or program officer. But often these problems go beyond a particular venue.

What if we had a TCS Ethics Board composed of a few of the most trusted members of our community? For example, if two people argue whether or not they proved the same result independently, the board could first try to come to a mutually acceptable resolution and if that fails, make an independent assessment that could be used by PC chairs and EiCs.

For more egregious cases of intentional plagiarism and/or theft of ideas, the board could write a stern letter that would go the perpetrator's supervisor and possibly recommend banning that person from publishing in various TCS journal and conferences for a specified period of time.

The vast majority of TCS researchers are quite honest and to a fault share credit for their ideas, but every now and then some researchers, probably not even realizing they are acting unethically, create an atmosphere of distrust with their actions. An ethics board would show that we care about proper academic behavior and giving a confidential forum where people can address their grievances and hopefully resolve issues before, as had happened, driving people out of our field.  

13 comments:

  1. My initial thought is that one ought to first evaluate the efficacy of ethics boards -- do they *really* improve things? It seems like they ought to, but I can imagine a nightmare scenario where entrenched bureaucracy becomes more entrenched or whatever.

    A quick look through google scholar suggests little such research, however. Maybe some (very) weak evidence: "A survey of potential violation witnesses related to the accounting profession revealed that the profession's complaint-based enforcement system may not provide practitioners with the necessary disincentive to refrain from code violations."

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  2. Surely you are trolling, Lance.
    Which saints of our "community" would be serving in that committee?
    Yes, let's just give power in the hands of a select few.
    Your ostensible naivete seems self-serving.

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  3. Are such ethical problems really so common in TCS that this deserves consideration? (In the words of GASARCH, "I ask this non-rheorically.") Can someone name a past scenario in which an ethics board would have been useful -- instead of whatever happened without one? (Surely at least one or two such cases are now public knowledge.)

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  4. Is there even an incident that one can cite (that is publicly known or at least well-known)?

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    1. There are incidents that I know about and certainly many that I don't but it isn't appropriate to bring up dirty laundry here.

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    2. So, it's inappropriate to bring up dirty laundry. It's apparently appropriate to say there's so much of it in TCS that an ethics board is worth discussing.

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  5. you seem to be sincere here & appreciate that. a periodic conversation on ethics & what it means is appropriate in every professional field. however it would seem that sayre's law applies. a bigger issue in academia is that theres so much competition for scarce resources (as everywhere else) that ppl are fighting over a sort of abstract "credit" that doesnt even translate into tangible rewards that much.

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  6. There is no community in TCS. Who decides whose in the community and whose not? Who shall decide which one is "trusted" and which one isn't?

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  7. Now that we are at it... Should we also have a super ethic board, monitoring the ethical standard held by the ethic board?

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  8. More to the point, which saints would be willing to waste a vast amount of time making enemies for themselves? I wouldn't mind having a referee to go to on such things, I would also trust quite a lot of people to do it fairly. I would never volunteer to do it myself, and I don't think it would really benefit the community as much as the saints' time spent on proving results would. We know, more or less, who just doesn't bother to check if someone else proved it recently and who is actually trying to play games.

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  9. I am also unaware of any cases where an ethics board would be useful.

    I have seen a few cases of plagiarism, but these are easily handled without an official board.

    I have been involved in a few cases of behavior I have found distasteful (e.g., discussing results with someone, only to have them write a competing paper). But I simply learned from such experiences not to share results with those people again. I fail to see how an ethics board would have helped there, especially since the behavior was just annoying, not clearly unethical.

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  10. Does any other branch of CS have an ethics board? How have they worked?

    My two cents: From what I've seen there have been so few cases that would have needed an ethics board that I don't think its needed. but that may just be from what I've seen.

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  11. I don't think it would help anything. Clear-cut cases can be handled by editors, other cases will turn into politics which is not going to help with the atmosphere.

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