A directory of resources inthe field of technical communication.


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In recent years, technical communicators have examined ethics, or the moral implications of their work, in increasing detail. Since the 1970s, when ethics first became a major topic of consideration in technical communication journals, more articles have appeared on the subject each year. With writers in the discipline expressing this pessimistic point of view, it is little wonder that practicing technical communicators tend not look to the discipline for ethical guidance.



After Enron: Integrating Ethics into the Professional Communication Curriculum   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

Recent scandals in the business community have alerted professional writing teachers to the importance of highlighting ethics in the curriculum. From former experiences in teaching courses emphasizing ethics, the authors have adapted the curriculum to include a limited discussion of ethical approaches and terms and assigned group writing projects that consider the effects of business on the broader community. As a result of the integration of this ethical component into the entire course, students learn major ethical approaches; gain a vocabulary of ethical terms they can apply in the business world; interrogate the larger questions of business and its interactions with the local, national, and international community; and engage in the kind of dialectical discussions that require critical thinking.

Kienzler, Donna S. and Carol David. Journal of Business and Technical Communication (2003). Articles>Education>Ethics


Anti-Employer Blogging: An Overview of Legal and Ethical Issues   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

Anti-employer blogs, those which criticize companies or their employees, are posing significant legal and ethical challenges for corporations. The important legal issue is the conflict between the employee's legal duty of loyalty to the employer and the employee's right to free speech. Although U.S. and state law describes what an employee may or may not say in a blog, corporations should encourage employees to contribute to the process of creating clear, reasonable policies that will help prevent expensive court cases. The important ethical issue concerning anti-employer blogs is whether an employee incurs an ethical duty of loyalty. In this article, I conclude that there is no such ethical duty. The legal duty of loyalty, explained in a company-written policy statement that employees must endorse as a condition of employment, offers the best means of protecting the legal and ethical rights of both employers and employees.

Markel, Mike. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (2009). Articles>Business Communication>Blogging>Ethics


Authorship and Responsibility: The Problem of Special Knowledge   (PDF)

The ethical questions that technical communicators face frequently present themselves obliquely, arising because the communicators depend heavily upon the special knowledge of other people who provide necessary information. The special knowledge that communicators lack and others possess may come from highly technical education, privileged access to information sources, or socially constructed access to information. Proponents of need-to-know policies may argue that limiting communicators' knowledge absolves them of responsibility for the information's veracity and effects; however, more ethically rigorous considerations of the issue consider communicators' authorial roles, their right to know, and their responsibility to their audiences.

Bryan, John G. STC Proceedings (1993). Articles>TC>Ethics


Avoiding Plagiarism

Academic writing in American institutions is filled with rules that writers often don’t know how to follow. A working knowledge of these rules, however, is critically important; inadvertent mistakes can lead to charges of plagiarism, or the unacknowledged use of somebody else’s words or ideas. While other cultures may not insist so heavily on documenting sources, American institutions do. A charge of plagiarism can have severe consequences, including expulsion from the university. This handout, which does not reflect any official university policy, is designed to help writers develop strategies for knowing how to avoid accidental plagiarism.

Purdue University (1997). Academic>Writing>Ethics>Plagiarism


The Banality of Rhetoric? Assessing Steven Katz's "The Ethic of Expediency" Against Current Scholarship on the Holocaust   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

Since 1992, Steven Katz's "The Ethic of Expediency" on the rhetoric of technical communication during the Holocaust has become a reference point for discussions of ethics. But how does his thesis compare to current understandings of the Holocaust? As this article describes, Katz was in step with the trend two decades ago to universalize the lessons of the genocide but his thesis presents key problems for Holocaust scholars today. Against his assertion that pure technological expediency was the ethos of Nazi Germany, current scholarship emphasizes the role of ideology. Does that invalidate his thesis? Katz's analysis of rhetoric and his universalizing application to the Holocaust are two claims that may be considered separately. Yet even if one does not agree that "expediency" is inherent in Western rhetoric, Katz has raised awareness that phronesis is socially constructed so that rhetoric can be unethically employed. Thus, rather than remain an uncritically accepted heuristic for technical communicators, "The Ethic of Expediency" can be a starting point for ongoing exploration into the ethical and rhetorical dimensions of the genre.

Ward, Mark. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (2009). Articles>Education>History>Ethics


Banner Blindness: Old and New Findings

Users rarely look at display advertisements on websites. Of the four design elements that do attract a few ad fixations, one is unethical and reduces the value of advertising networks.

Nielsen, Jakob. Alertbox (2007). Design>Web Design>Ethics>User Centered Design


The Browser War: An Ethical Analysis of the Struggle between Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Justice   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

The ongoing antitrust battle between the U.S. Department of Justice and Microsoft Corporation presents technical communicators with two ethical questions: 1) Is it right, good, or fair for Microsoft to give away its Internet Explorer browser? 2) If Microsoft gains monopoly control over the PC browser market, will this be good for us? This article examines these questions using traditional rights-based ethical theory (Kant), utilitarianism, and John Rawls principles of justice, concluding that it is neither good nor fair for a company having a near-monopoly over a market to sell products below fair market value, nor is it good that one company stands to gain monopoly control over the PC browser market. When the discussion turned to Netscape, one Intel executive, who asked not to be identified, recalled Martiz [Paul Martiz, Microsoft Group Vice President, Platforms & Application] saying: "We are going to cut off their air supply. Everything they re selling, we re going to give away for free" [1]. "We re giving away a pretty good browser as part of the operating system. How long can they survive selling it?"--Statement by Steve Ballmer, Microsoft President and CEO [2]. "Our business model works even if all Internet software is free," says Mr. Gates. "We are still selling operating systems." <em>Netscape</em>, in contrast, is dependent upon its Internet software for profits, he points out.--Statements by Bill Gates, Microsoft Chairman [3]. Only a monopolist could study a competitor and destroy its business by giving away products--Statement by Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems Chairman [4].

Meier, Dennis. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (1999). Articles>TC>Ethics>Web Browsers


Building Your Personal Brand Online

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that we are operating in a distrustful world, and that both companies and individual executives are subject to suspicion. In 2005, a worldwide Gallup poll found that 40 percent of people believe that company leaders are “largely dishonest,” and a 2006 Watson Wyatt study says that only 56 percent of company employees believe their top management acts with honesty and integrity. These are worrisome figures, given that senior executives worry a great deal about their companies’ reputations but may spend little time on their own.

Fierman, Stephanie. Communication World Bulletin (2008). Articles>Business Communication>Ethics>Online


The Case of Project    (PDF)

Cloning? Abortion? Social responsibility? Honesty? Legality? Loyalty? Trust? Privacy? You name it. 'The Case of Project Good-Bye, Dolly' immerses workshop participants in a maelstrom of value conflicts that swirl from bioethics to personal values. The presenters identify ten core values that un&rlie technical communication and show how these values can be used to support objective analysis and resolve ethical conflicts. Participants then explore ethical dilemmas 'hands-on' through small-group discussion and subsequent role-playing vignettes. This session is sure to spark lively debate.

Allen, Lori A. and Daniel W. Voss. STC Proceedings (1998). Articles>TC>Ethics


Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

Commitment to ethical professional conduct is expected of every member (voting members, associate members, and student members) of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). This Code, consisting of 24 imperatives formulated as statements of personal responsibility, identifies the elements of such a commitment. It contains many, but not all, issues professionals are likely to face.

ACM (1992). Articles>Computing>Professionalism>Ethics


Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators

The IABC Code of Ethics is based on three different yet interrelated principles of professional communication that apply throughout the world. These principles assume that just societies are governed by a profound respect for human rights and the rule of law; that ethics, the criteria for determining what is right and wrong, can be agreed upon by members of an organization; and, that understanding matters of taste requires sensitivity to cultural norms.

IABC. Careers>Business Communication>Ethics


Communicating Ethically

As new advances in engineering have occurred in the past quarter century, new ethical issues have arisen, as we frequently see in health care technology. The health care industry can now keep many people alive for a longer period of time, and people who would have died twenty‑five years ago can now be treated. Premature infants, heart attack victims, and other individuals can now be treated with new devices that prolong life. But new possibilities also raise ethical questions about who should receive benefits, who should pay for them, and when is it ethical to prolong life. Should a person who is being kept alive on by a machine and who has no chance of being returned to a state of health be permitted to die? At what birth weight should a premature infant be treated with unusually expensive equipment? Learning how to deal with ethical issues will be an important part of your engineering career. This summary can only touch the surface of the issues that lie ahead.

conneXions (2008). Articles>Scientific Communication>Biomedical>Ethics


Compliance and Ethics Cause Need for Policies and Procedures Communicatioin

Increasing competition, generational differences, widespread social awareness, and customer demand for higher quality products and services make it necessary to ensure that the right protections are in place. Other reasons for the increased attention include the numerous reports of corporate scandals and corruption, along with ensuing legislative regulations in today’s global economy. This article describes some of the specific causes.

Urgo, Raymond E. Policies and Procedures Authority, The (2008). Articles>Documentation>Policies and Procedures>Ethics


Complicating Technology: Interdisciplinary Method, the Burden of Comprehension, and the Ethical Space of the Technical Communicator   (PDF)   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

There is much for technical communicators to learn from the burgeoning field of technology studies. Technical communicators, however, have an obligation to exercise patience as they enter this arena of study. Using interdisciplinary theory, this article argues that technical communication must assume the 'burden of comprehension': the responsibility of understanding the ideologies, contexts, values, and histories of those disciplines from which we borrow before we begin using their methods and research findings. Three disciplines of technology study--history, sociology, and philosophy--are examined to investigate how these disciplines approach technology. The article concludes with speculation on how technical communicators, by virtue of their entrance into this interdisciplinary arena, might refashion both their practical roles and the scope of their ethical responsibilities.

Johnson, Robert R. Technical Communication Quarterly (1998). Articles>Technology>Ethics


Computer Human Values

As computers and digital devices increasingly insert themselves into our lives, they do so on an ever increasing social level. Designers need to understand the context of use and include the whole of a user's experience into the solution when creating a computer interface.

Shedroff, Nathan. Boxes and Arrows (2002). Articles>Technology>Ethics


Conference Humiliation: They're Tweeting Behind Your Back

Conference speakers beware: Twecklers are watching. They're out for blood. And you may be their next victim. The Twitter "back channel" can be a powerful tool to quickly knit a gathering of strangers into an online community, a place where attendees at meetings broadcast bits of sessions, share extra information such as links, and arrange social events. But the same technology can also enable a "virtual lynching." That's the phrase one twitster used to describe what happened at last month's HighEdWeb Association conference, an event that has gone down in social-media history as perhaps the most brutal abuse of the back channel yet.

Parry, Marc. Chronicle of Higher Education (2009). Articles>Presentations>Social Networking>Ethics


Confessions of a Backchannel Queen

I posted some critical comments about a speaker's presentation, and a Microsoft Research employee who I knew only by name called me out on it. He expressed concerns about whether it was "fair" to criticize someone who wasn't there to defend his or herself, and pointed out that we were a scary audience, and should be more generous. While he was right in some ways, the comment had a chilling effect, and it made me reluctant to do the kind of stream-of-consciousness chatter in the channel that I find often sparks the best responses and conversations.

Lawley, Liz. mamamusings (2009). Articles>Presentations>Social Networking>Ethics


Copyright and Electronic Publishing: Citation

This document focuses on why and how electronic sources must be cited so that students can avoid plagiarism. Because students now routinely use readily available electronic sources for their papers, they must learn how to properly cite them. You will have more complete coverage of plagiarism issues if you use this document in conjunction with the more general Recognizing and Avoiding Plagiarism, which includes an exercise in how to paraphrase, and The Template for Taking Notes on Research Papers, both of which are found in the Cain Project resources. Do not consider these documents to be legal advice: The author is not an attorney.

conneXions (2008). Articles>Intellectual Property>Ethics>Plagiarism


#cw09 and When I Saw the Point/Power/Danger of Twitter

While I was sitting there during this presentation being frustrated and not that impressed, I logged into #cw09 on Twitter and was able to see that there was a whole back-channel discussion going on about the presentation, and I was not alone in my frustration. If you were there and you were following #cw09 on Twitter, a whole new dimension to that talk opened up– not the one Ganley intended for sure, but a new dimension of resistance and reaction and occasional snarkiness nonetheless.

Krause, Steven D. StevenDKrause.com (2009). Articles>Presentations>Social Networking>Ethics


Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design

Deception is entwined with life on this planet. Insects deceive, animals deceive, and of course, we human beings use deception to manipulate, control, and profit from each other. It’s no surprise, then, that deception appears in web user interfaces; what is surprising is how little we talk about it. All the guidelines, principles, and methods ethical designers employ to design usable websites can be subverted to benefit business owners at the expense of users. Study the dark side so you can take a stand against unethical web design practices and banish them from your work.

Brignull, Harry. List Apart, A (2011). Articles>Web Design>User Interface>Ethics


The Dark Side of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces

Recently, I've been disturbed to read about some significant frontchannel disturbances arising through the use of Twitter backchannels to heckle speakers at conferences. I want to revisit some issues that initially arose [for me] 5 years ago, surrounding the use of another backchannel tool in another conference context, and reflect a bit on the dark side of how Twitter can leave us vulnerable to maliciously consequential strangers, even when we are in the same physical place ... and in some cases, especially when we are in the same physical space.

McCarthy, Joe. TypePad.com (2009). Articles>Presentations>Social Networking>Ethics


Designing Ethical Experiences: Social Media and the Conflicted Future

Questions of ethics and conflict can seem far removed from the daily work of user experience (UX) designers who are trying to develop insights into people's needs, understand their outlooks, and design with empathy for their concerns [2]. In fact, the converse is true: When conflicts between businesses and customers--or any groups of stakeholders--remain unresolved, UX practitioners frequently find themselves facing ethical dilemmas, searching for design compromises that satisfy competing camps. This dynamic is the essential pattern by which conflicts in goals and perspectives become ethical concerns for UX designers. Unchecked, it can lead to the creation of unethical experiences that are hostile to users--the very people most designers work hard to benefit--and damaging to the reputations and brand identities of the businesses responsible.

Lamantia, Joe. UXmatters (2008). Articles>User Experience>Community Building>Ethics


Designing Ethical Experiences: Understanding Juicy Rationalizations

Designers rationalize their choices just as much as everyone else. But we also play a unique role in shaping the human world by creating the expressive and functional tools many people use in their daily lives. Our decisions about what is and is not ethical directly impact the lives of a tremendous number of people we will never know. Better understanding of the choices we make as designers can help us create more ethical user experiences for ourselves and for everyone.

Lamantia, Joe. UXmatters (2008). Articles>User Experience>Ethics


Digital Plagiarism: The Role of Society and Technology

Examines the application of the World Wide Web in class education and research and the ways in which the Internet has enabled cheating and given educators ways to fight plagiarism.

Kennedy, Ryan. Orange Journal, The (2005). Articles>Publishing>Ethics>Plagiarism



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