10 Ethics in Technical Writing

Up to this point, you have probably been thinking about technical writing in relation to communicating technical information clearly in an accessible format that meets the needs of its audience. These are important aspects of technical writing, to be sure, but they really only represent the surface of what you need to know. This chapter will introduce some of the ethical issues that may arise as technical writers research, write, revise, and produce a technical document.

Like other professionals, technical writers come up against ethical issues regularly and must make decisions about how to move forward with a project in the face of ethical dilemmas. Writers may encounter situations in which she must ask the following kinds of questions: What kinds of support material and sources are ethical to use? Are open web sources just as valid as academic sources for certain topics? Can email communications be used without permission? What if the writer discovers that a company falsified data about the effectiveness of its product? Should she reveal this in her report or should she take other courses of action? How much should a writer adapt to an audience without sacrificing his own views?

Ethics principles provide the basis for deciding whether “x” is ethical, but in reality, ethical issues are complicated—for example, imagine working for a large company that employs substantial numbers of people in your town, where relatively few other employment opportunities exist. Imagine that the company disposes of its chemical waste in a way that could endanger people’s health. Imagine, further, that the company cannot afford to dispose of this waste more safely and that, if you turn them in, the company will close down, most of the town will be unemployed, and the town’s entire economy will collapse. What do you do? Is the risk of future health problems more serious than the certainty of immediately destroying your town? Which choice is really more ethical?

On a smaller scale, if one way of presenting evidence requires some manipulation of data but seems to be the only way of keeping sales strong enough for your company to survive, what should you do? If you take the unethical route, odds are good that few (or no) people will realize you have done so, and you would not be doing anything illegal. If you take the ethical route, and sales plummet, few people will recognize the ethical issue, but most will clearly understand that you caused the sales decline.

General Principles

In day-to-day life, most people have a sort of sliding scale on what constitutes ethical behavior: they would not tell a direct lie on trivial matters if doing so would hurt someone’s feelings. For example, you might tell your best friend her new haircut looks attractive when in fact you believe that it does not. This lie, though minor, preserves your friend’s feelings and does no harm to her or anyone else. Some might consider the context before determining how to act. For example, you might not tell a stranger that he was trailing toilet paper but you would tell a friend. In a more serious situation, a person might not choose to die to save a stranger’s life, but she might risk dying to save her children’s lives.

Ethical behavior, including ethical technical communication, involves not just telling the truth and providing accurate information, but telling the truth and providing information so that a reasonable audience knows the truth. It also means that you act to prevent actual harm, with set criteria for what kinds and degrees of harm are more serious than others (for example, someone’s life outweighs financial damage to your company; your company’s success outweighs your own irritation). As a guideline, ask yourself what would happen if your action (or non-action) became public. If you would go to prison, lose your friends, lose your job, or even just feel really embarrassed, the action is probably unethical.

Presentation of information

How a writer presents information in a document can affect a reader’s understanding of the relative weight or seriousness of that information. For example, hiding some crucial bit of information in the middle of a long paragraph deep in a long document seriously de-emphasizes the information. On the other hand, putting a minor point in a prominent spot (say the first item in a bulleted list in a report’s executive summary) tells your reader that it is crucial.

A classic example of unethical technical writing is the memo report NASA engineers wrote about the problem with O ring seals on the space shuttle Challenger (the link provides further links to a wide range of information, including ethics analyses; the first link is the overview for what happened). The unethical feature was that the crucial information about the O rings (O rings provide a seal) was buried in a middle paragraph, while information approving the launch was in prominent beginning and ending spots. Presumably, the engineers were trying to present a full report, including safe components in the Challenger, but the memo’s audience—non-technical managers—mistakenly believed the O ring problem to be inconsequential, even if it happened. The position of information in this document did not help them understand that the problem could be fatal. Possibly the engineers were just poor writers; possibly they did not consider their audience; or possibly they did not want to look bad and therefore emphasized all the things that were right with the Challenger. (Incidentally, the O rings had worked fine for several launches.)

Ethical writing, then, involves being ethical, of course, but also presenting information so that your target audience will understand the relative importance of information and understand whether some technical fact is a good thing or a bad thing.

Typical Ethics Issues in Technical Writing:

There are a few issues that may come up when researching a topic for the business or technical world that a writer must consider. Let’s look at a few.

Research that does not support the project idea

In a technical report that contains research, a writer might discover conflicting data which does not support the projects’ goal. For example, your small company continues to have problems with employee morale. Research shows bringing in an outside expert, someone who is unfamiliar with the company and the stakeholders, has the potential to impact the greatest change. You discover, however, that to bring in such an expert is cost prohibitive. You struggle with whether to leave this information out of your report, thereby encouraging your employer to pursue and action that is really not feasible.

Suppressing relevant information

Imagine you are researching a report for a parents’ group that wants to change the policy in the local school district requiring all students to be vaccinated. You collect a handful of sources that support the group’s goal, but then you discover medical evidence that indicates vaccines do more good than potential harm in society. Since you are employed by this parents’ group, should you leave out the medical evidence, or do you have a responsibility to include all research, even some that might sabotage the groups’ goal.

Presenting visual information ethically

Visuals can be useful for communicating data and information efficiently for a reader. They provide data in a concentrated form, often illustrating key facts, statistics or information from the text of the report. When writers present information visually, however, they have to be careful not to misrepresent or misreport the complete picture.

The visual below shows two perspectives of information in a pie chart. The data in each is identical but the pie chart on the left presents information in a misleading way (see Fig. 1). What do you notice, however, about how that information is conveyed to the reader?

Fig. 1 – Misleading and regular pie charts

Pie Charts

Imagine that these pie charts represented donations received by four candidates for city council. The candidate represented by the green slice labeled “Item C,” might think that she had received more donations than the candidate represented in the blue “Item A” slice. In fact, if we look at the same data in a differently oriented chart, we can see that Item C represents less than half of the donations than those for Item A. Thus, a simple change in perspective can change the impact of an image.

Similarly, take a look at the bar graphs in figure 2 below. What do you notice about their presentation?

Fig. 2 – Misleading and regular bar graphs

Two Bar Charts

If the bar graph above were to represent sales figures for a company, the representation on the left would look like good news: dramatically increased sales over a five-year period. However, a closer look at the numbers shows that the graph shows only a narrow range of numbers in a limited perspective (9100 to 9800). The bar graph on the right, on the other hand, shows the complete picture by presenting numbers from 0-1200 on the vertical axis, and we see that the sales figures, have in fact been relatively stable for the past five years.

Presenting data in graphical form can be especially challenging. Keep in mind the importance of providing appropriate context and perspective as you prepare your graphics.

Limited source information in research

Thorough research requires that a writer integrates information from a variety of reliable sources. These sources should demonstrate that the writer has examined the topic from as many angles as possible. This includes scholarly and professional research, not just from a single database or journal, for instance, but from a variety. Using a variety of sources helps the writer avoid potential bias that can occur from relying on only a few experts. If you were writing a report on the real estate market in Central Oregon, you would not collect data from only one broker’s office. While this office might have access to broader data on the real estate market, as a writer you run the risk of looking biased if you only chose materials from this one source. Collecting information from multiple brokers would demonstrate thorough and unbiased research.

A few additional concerns

You might notice that most of these ethics violations could easily happen accidentally. Directly lying is unlikely to be accidental, but even in that case, the writer could persuade her/himself that the lie achieved some “greater good” and was therefore necessary.

Even more common is an ethics violation resulting from the person who is designing the information seeing it as evidence for whatever s/he understands as true and honestly not recognizing the bias in how s/he has presented that information.

Most ethics violations in technical writing are (probably) unintentional, BUT they are still ethics violations. That means a technical writer must consciously identify his/her biases and check to see if a bias has influenced any presentation: whether in charts and graphs, or in discussions of the evidence, or in source use (or, of course, in putting the crucial O ring information where the launch decision makers would realize it was important).

For example, scholarly research is theoretically intended to find evidence either that the new researcher’s ideas are valid (and important) or evidence that those ideas are partial, trivial, or simply wrong. In practice, though, most folks are primarily looking for support. “Hey, I have this great new idea that will solve world hunger, cure cancer, and make mascara really waterproof. Now I just need some evidence to prove I am right!”

In fact, if you can easily find 94 high-quality sources that confirm you are correct, you might want to consider whether your idea is worth developing. Often in technical writing, the underlying principle is already well-documented (maybe even common knowledge for your audience) and the point SHOULD be to use that underlying principle to propose a specific application.

Using a large section of your report to prove an already established principle implies that you are saying something new about the principle—which is not true. A brief mention (“Research conducted at major research universities over the last ten years (see literature review, Smith and Tang, 2010) establishes that. . . .”) accurately reflects the status of the principle; then you would go on to apply that principle to your specific task or proposal.

Ethics and documenting sources

The chapter titled “Citation and Plagiarism” stresses the importance of documenting your sources. Documenting your sources includes showing exactly what you borrowed both where you used it and in a Works Cited, Works, or References (the different terms reflect different documentation systems, not just random preference) list at the end.

Including an item only in the source list at the end suggests you have used the source in the report, but if you have not cited this source in the text as well, you could be seen as misleading the reader. Either you are saying it is a source when in fact you did not really use anything from it, or you have simply failed to clarify in the text what are your ideas and what comes from other sources.

Documenting source use in such a way as to either mislead your reader about the source or make identifying the source difficult is also unethical—that would include using just a URL or using an article title without identifying the journal in which it appears (in the Works Cited/References; you would not likely identify the journal name in the report’s body). Unethical source use also includes falsifying the nature of the source, such as omitting the number of pages in the Works Cited entry to make a brief note seem to be a full article.

Unethical source use includes suppressing information about how you have used a source, such as not making clear that graphical information in your report was already a graph in your source, as opposed to a graph you created on the basis of information in the source.

Note that many problems in documenting sources occur because the writer is missing the point of source use:

  • you must clearly distinguish between your ideas and borrowed material,
  • and you must use borrowed material primarily as evidence for your own, directly stated ideas.

If you blend source material together with your ideas (including as “your ideas” your analysis or application of borrowed materials), you will indeed find that showing exactly what is borrowed versus what is yours is impossible. That is because you cannot ethically blend your ideas together with source material. Any time you find you cannot apply documentation principles, consider whether you are using the source(s) unethically. Students often argue that they cannot separate their ideas from borrowed ideas because they would then have to document the whole paper—if that is true, the paper is most certainly not making “fair use” of the sources.

Ethics, Plagiarism, and Reliable Sources

Unlike personal or academic writing, technical and professional writing can be used to evaluate your job performance and can have implications that a writer may or may not have considered. Whether you are writing for colleagues within your workplace or outside vendors or customers, you will want to build a solid, well-earned favorable reputation for yourself with your writing. Your goal is to maintain and enhance your credibility, and that of your organization, at all times.

Credibility can be established through many means: using appropriate professional language, citing highly respected sources, providing reliable evidence, and using sound logic. Make sure as you start your research that you always question the credibility of the information you find. Are the sources popular or scholarly? Are they peer reviewed by experts in the field? Are the methods and arguments used based on solid reasoning and sound evidence? Is the author identifiable and does s/he have appropriate credentials? Be cautious about using sources that are not reviewed by peers or editor, or in which the information seems misleading, biased, or even false. Be a wise information consumer in your own reading and research in order to build your own reputation as an honest, ethical writer.

Quoting the work of others in your writing is fine, provided that you credit the source fully enough that your readers can find it on their own. If you fail to take careful notes, or the sentence is present in your writing but later fails to get accurate attribution, it can have a negative impact on you and your organization. That is why it is important that when you find an element you would like to incorporate in your document, in the same moment as you copy and paste or make a note of it in your research file, you need to note the source in a complete enough form to find it again.

Giving credit where credit is due will build your credibility and enhance your document. Moreover, when your writing is authentically yours, your audience will catch your enthusiasm, and you will feel more confident in the material you produce. Just as you have a responsibility in business to be honest in selling your product of service and avoid cheating your customers, so you have a responsibility in business writing to be honest in presenting your idea, and the ideas of others, and to avoid cheating your readers with plagiarized material.

Professional ethics

Many organizations and employers have a corporate code of ethics. If you are a technical writer and you join a professional associations such as the Society of Technical Communicators you will need to be aware their codes of ethics, published online (e.g. http://www.stc.org/about-stc/the-profession-all-about-technical-communication/ethical-principles). If you are a technical writer researching and writing a report within a specific professional field, you will also need to be aware to that field’s codes of ethics. For example, let’s say you are writing a report for a group of physical therapists on the latest techniques for rehabilitating knee surgery patients. You should be aware of the code of ethics for physical therapists so that you work within those principles as you research and write your report.

Look for the codes of ethics in your own discipline and begin to read and understand what will be expected of you as a professional in your field.

Chapter Attribution Information

  • Thanks to Eleanor Sumpter-Latham, Humanities/Writing Professor at Central Oregon Community College (COCC) for contributing to this chapter.

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Technical Writing by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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