Adventures in Ethics and Science

Recently in my inbox, I found a request for advice unlike any I’d received before. Given the detail in the request, I don’t trust myself to paraphrase it. As you’ll see, I’ve redacted the names of the people, university, and government agency involved. I have, however, kept the rest of the query (including the original punctuation) intact.

In 2004 I denounced a music piracy case caused by a [U.S. government agency] contractor and [Research University X] computer scientist: Dr. [let's call him "Jolly Roger"]. This man used peer to peer technology to create CDs for third party distribution to his friends; the home computer lab he was using for his peer to peer activities contained a [U.S. government agency] computer keyboard and he was using his [U.S. government agency] based E-mail account to communicate with third parties about his amateur counterfeit CDs/pirate CDs. [U.S. government agency] and the FBI did not take the case seriously and no legal action was taken against Dr. [Jolly Roger] to my knowledge.

-the agents from [U.S. government agency] who investigated the case told me Dr. [Jolly Roger] confirmed my allegations but that they could not be verified, the US attorney declined to prosecute the case because it had not been substantiated. In fact the [U.S. government agency] agents were purely and simply not qualified for the investigation.

- [Two guys] from IFPI in London, UK insured me they believed my allegations against Dr. [Jolly Roger] (over lunch at a restaurant together).

- I met [Jolly Roger] in 2003 precisely and some of my friends and I were invited to his home together.

- [Jolly Roger] stole an automobile in [a U.S. state] and ended in jail for it…  … …

- I lost a national discrimination matter because I could not afford a lawyer at the time of the case (no judgement).

- [Jolly Roger] recently filed a defamation case against me in [the country both Roger and my correspondent are from].

- the RIAA stopped filing against similar cases caused by individuals in december 2008 because it could never bring evidence for these cases (the RIAA is looking for ISP deals).

My complaint is that [Research University X] is mismanaged for employing a scientist with a computer degree like [Jolly Roger] who teaches and steals music like stupid students do online.

What is your position on my complaint please?

I’ll admit it, after the laundry list of sins committed by Dr. Jolly Roger, I expected that my correspondent’s question was going to concern how best to pursue the piracy complaint against him, or how his lack of respect for the law might fundamentally undercut his ability to perform adequately as a computer science researcher or teacher. I did not expect that the big question was going to concern Research University X and its management (or mismanagement).

But since it is, let’s take this opportunity to set aside all those issues that may have tempted us were we dissecting Dr. Jolly Roger’s alleged conduct here — the RIAA’s strategies in dealing with peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted works, the relevant distinctions (if any) between bootlegging whole albums and putting together the digital equivalent of mix-tapes, selling versus sharing, whether it is only stupid students or also smart ones who obtain music through peer-to-peer and so forth. Let’s also set aside what looks to be significant personal animus for Dr. Jolly Roger on the part of my correspondent.

Instead, consider the question: what oversight should a research university exercise in hiring, and continuing to employ, a scientist? I take it my correspondent is most concerned with issues of the following sort:

  • making sure the scientist does not use equipment, resources, or time for unauthorized (or illegal) activities
  • making sure the scientist does not endanger the university’s relationship with government agencies or other sources of research funding for its faculty and students
  • making sure the scientist does not sully the reputation of the university
  • making sure the scientist does not draw the university’s students (or staff) into illegal or unethical activities

Now, I’ll agree that a university has an interest in each of these. The big question is how hands-on a university should be (or even can be, practically speaking) in pursuing each of these interests.

Let me turn the questions over to you, dear readers.

What kind of steps ought a university to take to make sure faculty aren’t misusing resources? What kind of oversight would cross the line from due diligence to draconian?

Do universities have a presumptive interest in closely monitoring their faculty? Do they have an obligation to undertake such monitoring in the face of an outside complaint? (Does it matter how credible the complainant seems?)

And, is there the potential for a total-surveillance approach to faculty management to head off illegal activities (or goofing off) but undermine research and teaching activities?

What is your position on this complaint please?

Comments

  1. #1 tbell1
    February 3, 2010

    on the general position of monitoring their faculty, I don’t know how many resources employers ought to expend. If something comes to their attention, they might be concerned.

    however, i have to say that this email absolutely reeks of a personal obsession. why exactly does this person care? I note that there were defamation lawsuits involved. Someone really wants to punish Jolly Roger badly. My suggestion is to not get entangled with crazy people.
    I doubt very much that this is just about a citizen wanting to see justice done in a music etc. piracy case.

  2. #2 Katherine
    February 3, 2010

    I am posting on this blog from the computer I use at work, where work is a company that is owned by the city in which it is located. However posting on a blog is not illegal (or even borderline illegal). I am using company resources for it though. But it is during my lunch break, and I am not presenting my views as though they are the views of my company. The more time and resources you spend monitoring your employees, the more likely they will expend more resources getting round your monitoring, and the more likely it is that they will up and leave. That said, if an employee is engaging in illegal behaviour, and that behaviour is brought to the attention of the employer, they should do something about it (even if that something is to hand it over to the relevant enforcement agency). There is usually a company policy on ceasing to employ people that commit crimes using company equipment, isn’t there?

  3. #3 Tony P
    February 3, 2010

    If you want to talk music piracy, then one state government office I worked (Actually both state office I worked in) had rampant piracy going on.

  4. #4 Trey
    February 3, 2010

    Please cure cancer, ALS, or AIDS.

    No one cares about the (non) issues you relate.

  5. #5 Gordon Campbell
    February 4, 2010

    What Trey said. In fact it’s so true that I’m gonna post it on every blog on the Internet. (Except, of course, those actively involved in curing cancer, ALS or AIDs). Does anyone have a list?

  6. #6 mdiehl
    February 4, 2010

    In the research university where I work, and employees are required yearly to take an ethics exam – never mind that our last elected governor wouldn’t have passed it, and was removed from office by the state legislature last year – one can be guilty of stealing time from the university/state for doing other than one’s job.

  7. #7 Ed Darrell
    February 6, 2010

    I used to work and consult in the corporate world rather broadly. I well recall one meeting I attended where the question was abuse of phone privileges by the working people on what was essentially the factory floor. This was in the era before cheap cell phones. One woman was going through a divorce, and had taken several calls from her attorney at the phone, mostly on emergency child custody actions. One fellow had a discussion with physicians for his father over unplugging the life support machines. One of the key gripes from management was over employees calling their union and calling their investment advisors on the issues of converting pensions to 401K plans, as the company favored.

    One of my consulting colleagues bravely asked what the purpose of the phone on the shop floor was, and it quickly became apparent that had not been thought out. “Emergencies” and “orders to the employees” were quickly posed, and accepted by management. This would leave out discussions with divorce lawyers, physicians, unions and pension advisors — not to be done on company phones.

    A resolution on a rule for the company manual was quickly written and was steaming to passing when one manager asked whether a ban on use of company phones for such discussions wouldn’t also outlaw managers’ calls home — no problem, many said — managers’ calls to lawyers — not a serious problem, most agreed — and managers’ calls to their stockbrokers.

    The motion for a new rule was sent to a committee for much further study. To the best of my knowledge it never emerged.

    At another meeting with a large airline, a cost-cutting frenzy had produced a rule making it a firable offense to “steal” a company pen. The rule died when someone asked whose high-school aged children were not, at that moment, taking notes in class with a pen that had the company’s name on it.

    In my profession of teaching, I have many colleagues who carry their own laptops specifically to prevent any appearance of appropriation of “company” property, should they respond to e-mail or write a paper for a class they are taking at the local community college. They are considered outlaws, and held suspect by administrators and other teachers. There is danger in even working hard to comply with rules against unauthorized use of computers.

    We might agree that what Dr. Jolly Roger is doing is not seemly, and perhaps not completely legal. It is a wrong with no legal resolution available at the moment, within the bounds of practicality, and maybe within the bounds of common sense.

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