Ethics and Diversity Poll

This is a guest post by Caitlin Casey (IfA, Hawaii) and Kartik Sheth (NRAO) who recently hosted a “Diversity and Ethics” Seminar at the Aspen Center for Physics.  

The “Gray Zone” of Academic Ethics

Your student gets a nasty email from a colleague insulting her work.  You think your other colleague has plagiarized a postdoc in the group.  A friend of yours at another institution has had problems with harassment and bullying.  How do you react?

The culture of academia can be rife with uncomfortable situations, some more clearcut than others.  We all began our research careers with expectations that both ourselves and our colleagues will behave ethically. Sometimes reality might be surprising.  Your judgement might be very different than your colleague’s down the hall due to cultural differences, the different subfields you work in, or different experiences in your careers.  Your own behavior might also evolve over the course of your career.  What constituted an ethical breach when you were bright-eyed, 25-years-old and new to the field might be different from your assessment fifteen years down the line.  While workplace violence training sessions/online forms mostly discuss the most extreme cases (colleagues threatening each other, bringing weapons to work, blatant sexual harassment), they hardly ever discuss situations falling in that vast “gray zone” of academic ethics.  So how do we judge what’s ethical and what’s not?  How should we react if we’re uncomfortable with a situation?

This post tackles these issues with the most interesting and useful of tools: crowdsourcing.

Below, we have collated 25 hypothetical scenarios that astronomers might face in their careers and we’re going to ask you to rank them on a continuous scale from 1 to 9 (1=bad, 9=good).  Make sure to use of the whole scale 1-9. While several of the scenarios might be clearly very positive or negative, many will fall in the middle.  You also have the optional opportunity to reflect on each scenario by submitting your thoughts; all responses to this survey are anonymous.  The results of this survey will be collated and shared in another post in two weeks’ time.

Here’s a breakdown of the scale you should use:

1 = Blatantly Unethical or illegal behavior
2 = Unacceptable behavior
3 = Undesirable behavior
4 = Slightly uncomfortable or undesirable behavior, perhaps acceptable
5 = Neutral behavior; neither good nor bad
6 = Acceptable but not particularly desired
7 = Acceptable, normal ethical behavior
8 = Good behavior worthy of encouragement
9 = Desirable behavior we hope to foster in our community.
Update (9/2/2013): Many of the scenarios are ambiguous because they involve multiple people; that ambiguity is purposeful.  We ask that you evaluate your level of comfort with the situation and not necessarily the behavior of individuals portrayed in the scenarios.

Ethics and Diversity Poll

25 Questions, Submit Button at the Bottom

26 comments… add one
  • anonymous Sep 2, 2013 @ 13:47

    Interesting exercise, but some questions are unclear.
    16. Am I to evaluate the plagiarization or the supervisor’s behaviour?
    25. Am I to evaluate Robin’s attempt to get a discounted family vacation, or Ricardo’s assumption that Robin has a husband?

    • anon 2 Sep 2, 2013 @ 14:07

      I had several similar issues:
      3. the young stars’ behavior or Kwan’s decision?
      10. the fact that the job went to a woman or Brian’s reaction?
      17. Hugo’s supervisor’s statement or Hugo’s response?
      24 (the second one). Jorge’s ultimatum or his colleagues’ behavior?

    • anon 3 Sep 2, 2013 @ 14:28

      One more:
      11. the bullying senior faculty’s behaviour, Blair’s decision to not tell the chair, or the chair’s supposed reaction?

    • fed Sep 10, 2013 @ 0:43

      interesting: i though in 25. i was to evaluate Ricardo’s effort to facilitate the participation with a woman with a newborn…

  • Caitlin Sep 2, 2013 @ 14:30

    Hi guys, if you are struggling to figure out who to evaluate in each scenario that’s fine. We left several purposefully ambiguous and only ask that you evaluate your level of comfort with the situation. Perhaps ask yourself how your vote would change if you we’re judging one person’s behavior or the other.

  • Kartik Sheth Sep 2, 2013 @ 14:47

    As Caitlin noted – we left the situations purposely ambiguous. These are intended to lead to broader discussion within a group. If you are interested in leading a workshop / such an exercise in your department / institution and want to discuss these in more detail or want to know how you might moderate this — please contact myself or Caitlin


  • just me Sep 2, 2013 @ 18:04

    Situation #26:
    Jane and John plan a survey and define 25 ambiguous situations and expect accurate results.
    Response: 3, undesirable behavior

  • Aaron Maxwell Sep 2, 2013 @ 20:08

    I am sorry, but a number of these scenarios are not grey, but clearly black and white.

  • ano3 Sep 2, 2013 @ 20:34

    Perhaps we should add some questions so that one can identify his/her cultural background and academic position.

    These will easily influence one’s judgement.

  • A Nony Mouse Sep 3, 2013 @ 1:10

    While intentional ambiguity could be useful in provoking discussion, it seems absurd in the context of a survey. -1 for copying and pasting into a new context where the method doesn’t work.

  • Kartik Sheth Sep 3, 2013 @ 1:28

    Recommend that people don’t try and think there is one right answer for a situation. We are happy regardless of how you want to view these – they are *purposely ambiguous* because we want you to look at the complexity of a situation from various angles. Feel free to take a side and grade accordingly and comment as you see fit. You can add whatever context your worldview and your experiences has to the situation. We created this exercise as a continuum exercise in Aspen with very lively discussion between 40-50 people and it probably does not translate easily in a form format but people’s reactions themselves are quite instructive and useful.

    @Just me: Thanks for your sarcastic comment. If there is a more constructive suggestion you have, please I would love to hear it. More importantly if you want to discuss the details of how these scenarios came to be etc. feel free to please email me or Caitlin – we will preserve your anonymity.

  • not just me Sep 3, 2013 @ 9:12

    I have scenario #28:

    Mary, a fresh graduate student, is giving a talk at a galaxy bar conference for some 70 people in Spain in May. John, a respected, high-profile scientist who is also very into ethical questions, is in the audience during her talk. The first three minutes of Mary’s talk John spends loudly talking to his neighbour about something entirely unrelated and is showing stuff on his computer to his neighbour. Jill, gets very stressed and loses the thread, and is considering to ask John to stop talking.

  • Mark Sep 3, 2013 @ 9:34

    I don’t see how this is effectively adding to any discussion. What can these survey results tell you? The potential ambiguities in most of the scenarios will just annoy most people without getting them to think about the full range of possibilities as I believe might be your goal. Clearly the format here appears to be a major issue since a discussion of the individual scenarios is what would be most useful. Instead you are getting more comments about the survey and the overall ambiguities than discussion of the particulars.

    A suggestion: start a ‘question of the day’ or week, whatever, where you introduce one scenario perhaps with slightly more context (or less, depending). Then purposefully ask for feedback on specific aspects of that scenario. Otherwise I don’t think there will be enough discussion to be worthwhile. You should also have led off the post specifically emphasizing the genesis of the survey so that respondents know where you are headed.

  • Kartik Sheth Sep 3, 2013 @ 9:38

    Hi Mark,
    Yes the number of criticisms of the survey are interesting but overall a minor fraction of the total responses. I personally am not surprised – its hard to take what was an interactive, hands on exercise to crowd-sourcing survey form will always create this. Perhaps we should have asked people to work together (*gasp*) in their local departments to do this 😉 Anyways – good comments are being entered and will be worth discussing in the future.


  • not just me Sep 3, 2013 @ 9:41

    it should be “mary” instead of “jill” in the last sentence. (only “mary” and “john”)

  • Mark Sep 3, 2013 @ 9:46

    Also, just because you aren’t happy with @Just me’s comment doesn’t mean they don’t have a valid point. I actually laughed when I read that comment because it said what I was thinking. That as presented this feels both pretentious and a bit pointless. Your response to that by dismissing the comment suggests that you really don’t see the poor execution here; they are pointing out a very valid response to this survey! The fact that they didn’t give a response that you value just shows that you weren’t clear on what you are trying to do.

  • Kartik Sheth Sep 3, 2013 @ 9:53

    Umm.. did you read my comment above? I said “…am not surprised – its hard to take what was an interactive, hands on exercise to crowd-sourcing survey form will always create this. Perhaps we should have asked people to work together (*gasp*) in their local departments to do this” — thank you for pointing out we could have executed this better. We had a lot of discussion about whether this is feasible to do in a survey form. I think no matter how we had done it there would always have been criticisms – just the nature of the beast. Will have to do better next time.


  • Kartik Sheth Sep 3, 2013 @ 9:55

    ps. And in general I am not a fan of anonymous criticisms – that is why I invited dialogue from “just me”. Anyone can post to this wiki and I’d prefer to have a real discussion of how to do this better next time as you have suggested.

  • Peter Sep 3, 2013 @ 15:43

    I feel the clarified instructions –“We ask that you evaluate your level of comfort with the situation and not necessarily the behavior of individuals portrayed in the scenarios.” –does not help given the ratings we are supposed to use. The (intentional) ambiguity does not allow one to ascribe unethical behavior to a situation as a whole. Unethical behavior might have occurred, but desirable behavior might have also occurred by someone else in the anecdote.

    I do agree with the suggestion that posting individual scenarios would encourage more discussion of the behavior and ways to improve things.

  • Caitlin Sep 3, 2013 @ 17:08

    I’m finding it really fascinating how some are caught up in the ambiguity; without giving away any details, it reflects a bit in the results but otherwise (perhaps surprisingly) we’re getting more or less what we expected online. It’s in line with prior in-person results. Awesome to already have >300 responses with lots of great feedback! Stay tuned for the full update in the follow-up post.

    One more clarification I might add is that not all of these are *ethical* questions; some seem to be confused about how to rank perfectly ethical but undesirable situations. Note that only a ranking of 1 is blatantly unethical. The other ranks, 2-9, might be questionable or undesirable but perfectly ethical. Then if you find yourself split on a scenario — ranking 1 for one individual and ranking 9 for another — ask yourself whether or not it’s a situation we want to have happen in our community. If not, give it a lower ranking; if you think the positive action `outweighs’ some of the negative behavior described then give it a higher ranking (Peter, this possibly relates to the scenarios you are trying to judge). Try to not overthink it.

    I really like the suggestion of discussing individual scenarios in more detail as individual posts; unfortunately that would take up far too much effort on the part of Astrobetter, but perhaps we can branch off and have another ‘ethics’ forum or figure out how to couple this with the resources at CSWA. In the meantime, it’ll be really interesting to see the finished outcome of this survey and also give more context for the activity in the follow-up.


  • A Nony Mouse Sep 6, 2013 @ 0:43

    [this comment has been removed due to it not contributing positively to the discussion. In general, pseudo-anonymous (fake name, real email address) comments are tolerated on AstroBetter but not when they are fully anonymous (fake name & email) and lack a professional and respectful tone. –kelle]

  • jane Sep 11, 2013 @ 5:29

    Do you have a psychologist helping with the analysis? It would be very interesting to see how/if responses connect to who people instinctively relate to in the scenario.

  • Y. Sep 26, 2013 @ 6:13

    Any follow-up on this yet?

  • Caitlin Oct 2, 2013 @ 11:28

    Hi Y,
    We apologize for not yet posting the results. We’ve had to delay the follow-up since a journal has shown interest in publishing this as an op-ed. We thought the prospect of broadening the impact of such an exercise to a wider science community was worth the delay. So, the results will come, but perhaps later than originally planned.

  • Kartik Sheth Oct 8, 2013 @ 14:46

    Dear all,
    Many apologies for the lengthy delay in posting an update to our poll on Ethics and Diversity — schedules, travel and the completely inane government shutdown have been factors in contributing to an update here. But most importantly it has been the interest from Nature to publish the results of our survey in their magazine. That led to an expected delay in putting any results up due to the usual embargo rules and our apologies for that. We will soon get a column out in Nature and can continue the discussion of this exercise here following that.

    -Kartik (and Caitlin, in absentia)

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