Science in the Open – Legal and Ethical Aspects of Science Blogging

Got scuppered by the underground and arrived at the Royal Institution slightly late. But nevertheless am here now and attending the main event of Science Online 2009 London. Now sitting in the venerable Faraday lecture theatre and listening to the first talk of the session. I’ll trya dn liveblog these…I did this on twitter last time and lost followers for being so noisy…so back to the blog for now. As it is a liveblog, more reporting than commentary from me for now…I’ll leave the opinion pieces for later…

Legal and Ethical Aspects of Science Blogging

  • Starting with a code of conduct for bloggers
  • Legally, the blogger is the publisher
  • Assume always that your identity and professional position can be disclosed
  • Do not write anything you could not put your name to.

Blogging is not meaningless graffiti – it has consequences. As a nameless blogger..ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does anonymity mean in relation to blogging?
  • When would you consider blogging anonymously?
  • How the feeling of anonymity can increase blogging risk taking
  • How much of yourself to reveal?
  • Blogging within an academic website/institution – are you protected by this link?
  • Limited legal protection after precedence case

The Night Jack Case:

  • a serving police officer known as “Night Jack” blogging about his day to day life as a cop
  • journalist revealed his identity – contacted blogger before revealing his identity…question was…was there a legal way to prevent the revelation of his identity…newspaper showed that the identity of the blogger could be worked out without breach of confidentiality…the court decided that absent any breach of confidentiality or privacy there was no way to prevent the revelation of identity: courts consider blogging as a public activity…that is the essence of the Night Jack case…
  • There is a blurring of the border line between social research and blogging….

The Intrusive Blogger – when do you name names? Don’t just protect yourself as a blogger but also others….it’s ok to name names when they have been published….but don’t be nasty and discredit or judge…avoid outing others….I guess the message from all of this is that the Kantian Imperative applies here too…

The Style of Blogging

  • Be polite – even when holding people to scrutiny – look at Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” as an example of doing this: write about effects rather than people…it also limits legal exposure
  • To engage with comments: sometimes people tend to be polite on blog post but abusive in comments and arguments…remain polite even if you are angry and engaged in blogging activism

What bad things can happen to you when blogging

Criminal law: blogs are treated as publication

  • Contempt of Court – Criminal Offence…that is why newspapers are silent commenting on trial cases…do not influence a trial or court case as a blogger…courts are very anxious about this….same may apply to patent cases…
  • Consumer Protection: if you are promoting services on blog you are coming under the consumer protection issues of criminal law (e.g. also lecture services)

Copyright Law – Blogs are {Publications

  • When quoting, quote in accordance with the copyright act
  • Linking can be in breach of copyright act as well
  • However, protected by fair use particularly when using a passage of text or material  for analysis: you must be ding something with the copied text…
  • File Sharing – infringing if downloading without copyright holder’s permission
  • Photographs are NOT covered by fair use: copyright is absolute,…if someone objects to the use of a photo on your blog: take it down.
  • Misuse of private information is actionable

Libel Law

  • Bloggers are most exposed when impuning someone or accusing someone as being unprofessional
  • An accusation, under libel law, is considered to be a statement of fact – it is up to the accuser to prove the veracity of the accusation: moderate your comments
  • Your ISP can take you down if someone makes a complaint about you – they too, can be considered to be publishers and hence liable if they take no action once they have been notified of a complaint against you and have not acted

In general if leagal threats happen they can be extremnely stressful and time consuming. IF you get a letter threatening legal action agaoinst you: don’t panic….remember lawyers have clients – don’t blame the lawyer….a letter is an indication that there maybe someone you have a problem with: it is the client. On your blog – don’t flame either the lawyer or the client….

Work out what it is that is being objected to and seek legal advice. Also, don’t be afraid to take content down: if you have been wrong, admit it and take the content down.

Also remember the ethical frameworks and codes of conduct of your profession and stick to those when blogging. And finally:


…look after your own wellbeing …blogging can be draining and give rise to a culture of forced participation…it’s ok not to blog/engage in comments/provide content etc…it’s yours and it is fun

DISCLAIMER: this is me reblogging a talk on legal issues of blogging: it is not legal advice or guidance. If in doubt, see a lawyer!

Audience question: isn’t all of this care blunting the effective instrument that blogging can be? The virtue of the internet is that people can say what they want.

Answer: Not saying that people shouldn’t engage…just don’t engage in ad hominem attacks….

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