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The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing
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Section 1.13

Legal and Ethical Issues

Research in science and engineering, as in most professions, sometimes poses unexpected legal and ethical problems. These problems will often become apparent at the writing stage of a project. When written claims are made, the concreteness and technical quality of many statements can mask limitations and inconsistencies, thus posing potential legal and ethical problems. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be aware of the differential of expertise. The expert uses his or her specialized knowledge to solve a problem. Hence, the expert assumes an authority and uses a language that the layperson is usually not able to judge. Some sources of liability include a failure to
  2. point out alternatives

    note negative secondary effects

    give the whole picture

    acknowledge gaps in logic

    cite or credit sources

  3. Be specific about deliverables. If you aren't specific about what you are going to deliver, you can easily find yourself in a contested situation. Generally, you need a specific written agreement about what will be accomplished in your work. This is important for anyone, from the student writing his or her thesis proposal to the research proposal writer or the professional consultant.
  4. Keep clear and well-organized records. Although most people sometimes find themselves reduced by circumstances to back-of-the-napkin notes and records, that practice can lead to compromising and damaging consequences. Written records and communication are widely accepted means of establishing accountability. The written record is often scrutinized in court to study the fairness and thoroughness of a work record. Ethical questions, not to mention legal actions, arise continually over the fulfillment of contracts according to agreed-upon standards of work. The written record is often the only means you will have of demonstrating that an appropriate quantity and quality of work was completed.
  5. Be aware of potential sources of plagiarism. Be sure you understand what plagiarism is. It is the copying, whether deliberate or unintentional, of ideas or portions of text without citing the sources for credit. It is also the use of other people's ideas without attributing them to the proper source. Although plagiarism is often unintentional, it still demonstrates incompetence. If you fail to record your sources and then later forget that you used a source, you are still liable and open to the charge of theft of intellectual property.

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