Ethics in Technical Communications

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Sam Dragga discusses ethical practices in developing research projects, writing and revising manuscripts, and interacting with editors and reviewers.

Airdate: February 17, 2021

Season 1 Episode 16 | 45 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.180] – Liz Fraley

Good morning everyone, I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers, our interviewer. And welcome to Sam Dragga, today’s guest in Room 42. Sam is a Professor Emeritus of Technical Communication at Texas Tech University. He’s the co-author of several books, The Essentials of Technical Communication, Reporting Technical Information and Editing: The Design of Rhetoric. He was the series editor of the Alan Bacon series in Technical Communication and just concluded his service as editor in chief of STC’s journal technical communication quarterly, publishes quarterly. He’s been a high volume publisher of research, having authored or co-authored a number of articles and journals and collections, many of which are on professional ethics and intercultural communication. He’s a Fulbright specialist, a fellow of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. He’s a recipient of STC’s award for Excellence in teaching Technical Communication, the NCTE’s English Award for Best Book in Technical and Scientific Communication, and the best article reporting historical research in Technical and Scientific communication. He’s been the president of the ATTW and started their conference and he’s also the past chair of the TTU Department of English. Impressive data and we’re super glad to have you here. Today, he’s here to help us start answering the question how to navigate the ethical obligations of research and publishing in technical communication. Welcome.

[00:01:48.100] – Sam Dragga

Thank you and thanks for that introduction.

[00:01:51.630] – Janice Summers

Sam, we are so thrilled to have you and just so honored that you’ve been willing to come and spend some time with us and talk about Ethics. So, honestly, ethics is a little intimidating sometimes.

[00:02:08.260] – Sam Dragga

Oh, yeah.

[00:02:09.580] – Janice Summers

 You know,  personally, I get a little like hmm you know, when you bring up ethics, it’s like, OK. Why is that? That we get so intimidated by ethics.

[00:02:19.420] – Sam Dragga

I know people kind of sit up like you did, and you just straighten your shoulders, right? Yeah. Oh, well, I think, you know, everybody wants to do the right thing, and I think most people think of themselves as ordinarily, you know, trying to do the right thing and we are worried that we might make mistakes. And I think we recognize the consequences for ourselves and our sense of ourselves, but also for, you know, friends and family who might be affected by, you know, mistakes in the decisions that we make. So, yeah and nobody wants to be accused of being unethical.

[00:03:08.560] – Janice Summers

Right. Well, I mean, it can be disastrous. It’s one thing in your personal life, but quite another in your professional life.

[00:03:15.860] – Sam Dragga

Yes, absolutely.

[00:03:17.390] – Janice Summers


[00:03:17.990] – Sam Dragga

Yeah, yeah. And that’s why I always advise students that if you’re asked to do something that you find uncomfortable or that makes you uncomfortable, then it’s very important that you not accuse somebody of asking you to do something that’s unethical. But to say, to explain that, that makes me uncomfortable and to explain why, but also to have the backup of not just your own sense of what’s right and wrong, but what your profession thinks is right and wrong. So to know the code of conduct of your organization, to know the code of conduct of your professional association so that you can– So it’s not just you arguing with your supervisor, it’s you saying what your organization allows you to do or doesn’t allow you to do.

[00:04:22.000] – Janice Summers

And you bring up a really good point, because, you know, for business, college ethics, you always have ethics, but there’s always a slant on ethics and it depends on where you’re coming from. So I think in the professional life, it’s really– You bring up a really important point to know the ethics. All companies have an ethical credo. They all have their stated ethics.

[00:04:48.620] – Sam Dragga


[00:04:49.160] – Janice Summers

I mean, I can’t think of any company that doesn’t.

[00:04:52.160] – Sam Dragga

Yeah, they all have a code of conduct or a set of ethical standards. And often times, you know, with larger organizations, there’s an entire website built around that code of conduct with other resources, frequently asked questions, you know, hotlines who you can call for more information, etc. But as an employee of that organization, you will find strength if you are familiar with those resources, know the code of conduct, know what’s permitted and what isn’t so that it’s not just you against your supervisor.

[00:05:32.300] – Janice Summers


[00:05:32.780] – Sam Dragga

If your supervisors asked you to do something, it makes you feel uncomfortable and this opens a conversation.

[00:05:40.160] – Janice Summers


[00:05:40.910] – Sam Dragga

And the reason that you raised this question about what you’ve been asked to do is because you know, the code of conduct says X, Y and Z and you can start a negotiation, you know, I can’t do this that you’ve asked me to do, but I could do this. And so if you can solve your supervisor’s problem and offer an alternative–

[00:06:07.800] – Janice Summers


[00:06:08.400] – Sam Dragga

–ethical action to what has been asked of you that makes you uncomfortable, that shows that you are a problem solver

[00:06:18.840] – Janice Summers

A non-accuser, I think you bring up another really good point Sam. You can’t go at somebody say you’re being unethical.

[00:06:26.980] – Sam Dragga

Right, right.

[00:06:29.160] – Janice Summers

It doesn’t go over well

[00:06:29.820] – Sam Dragga

Yeah, that ends the conversation, right? Yeah

[00:06:33.220] – Janice Summers

You’re right there. But to go and say ok, well, this is for me personally, I think this is a bit, I’m uncomfortable with this, and here’s the reason why.

[00:06:45.210] – Sam Dragga


[00:06:45.210] – Janice Summers

But here’s the potential solution that I have so it’s kind of giving that supervisor or manager a way to correct the situation that’s more acceptable.

[00:06:57.230] – Sam Dragga


[00:06:57.690] – Janice Summers

Without beating them over the head with the book on ethics.

[00:07:00.870] – Sam Dragga

Right. Yes, yeah. You don’t want to come across this morally superior.

[00:07:05.370] – Janice Summers

Yeah, even if you are.

[00:07:07.410] – Sam Dragga

Even if you are. Yeah, so you want to avoid, you know, both that sense of superiority, but you also don’t want to be subservient so you need to demonstrate that you do think about these things, that you can’t just be– That you won’t do just everything that’s asked of you

[00:07:26.760] – Janice Summers

Cause that’s not what you’re hired for anyway.

[00:07:28.560] – Sam Dragga

No, it’s not what you hired for

[00:07:31.080] – Janice Summers

 And if you are in a research project, that’s not what you’re asked to participate in a research project.

[00:07:34.980] – Sam Dragga

Exactly, and you have multiple ethical obligations. I mean, you have an obligation to your discipline as well as to your employer. You have to make your discipline operate in honorable, ethical ways so you could do the expedient thing and do whatever your employer wants you to do. But that’s not good for ultimately your employer. But it’s also not good for you, it’s not good for your field, it’s not good for the academic institution that trained you, because if you do something that is unethical, people will wonder, like, well, why, you know, what kind of education did you get? So it’s important that you stand up not only for yourself, but for all of those who put you in that employers employment.

[00:08:25.020] – Janice Summers

So we have a duty, as it were, as professionals in the field.

[00:08:31.800] – Sam Dragga

Yes, absolutely.

[00:08:33.300] – Janice Summers

To uphold now–

[00:08:36.450] – Sam Dragga

As well as to the wider society.

[00:08:38.610] – Janice Summers

In technical communications, is there also a code of ethics?

[00:08:42.840] – Sam Dragga

There is a code of ethics in–You know, each of the major fields, major organizations in the field have an ethical set of guidelines or a code of conduct and if you’re operating in the field, it would be useful for you to know what those are. The STC ethical guidelines are relatively straightforward, simple principles and others like the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, they have a set of ethical guidelines which outline what your responsibilities are to the profession, to your students, to your institution, etc. So they are organized in different ways, explained in different ways. IEEE has a set of, 10 principles that apply across the field of engineering, but also apply to people who are engaged in Technical Communication in that field.

[00:09:44.830] – Sam Dragga

So, it’s important I think, you know, regardless of the organization that you’re operating in, familiarize yourself with all of these codes of conduct and ethical guidelines as well as your employers so that you have a wider understanding, a wider appreciation of the scope of ethics as it might apply to your field. And especially if you are engaged in intercultural communication, then you also have to recognize that, different cultures have different ethical perspectives. And it’s important for you to be able to recognize that perhaps people from other cultures are coming at questions of ethics, you know, from a different perspective that might be unfamiliar to you or might strike you as unethical.

[00:10:40.310] – Liz Fraley


[00:10:41.030] – Janice Summers

That’s a lot to have to balance.

[00:10:43.040] – Sam Dragga

It is. Yeah, I mean–

[00:10:44.450] – Janice Summers

All of this prisms, it’s like a kaleidoscope.

[00:10:46.790] – Sam Dragga

It is. And that’s what makes ethics, I think, both challenging and but also interesting. Because it is this continuing set of challenges, and nobody has all ethical questions answered and it’s always– Well, it’s a series of continuing moving targets.

[00:11:18.360] – Janice Summers

That’s why they have general guidelines, you can have to fill in the blanks sometimes.

[00:11:24.150] – Sam Dragga

Right, yes. And it helps sometimes to practice. I mean, and that’s what you know, that’s what reading cases is useful for. The–when you read an ethical case or an article that deals with a historical case where ethical issues are raised, it gives you, I think, a better understanding, a better appreciation of how ethics intersects with some of the decisions the technical communicators have to make. And it gives you a way of looking at that case and thinking, well, is that how I would have answered it and see how others might have addressed some of the same questions that you need to address in your field, in your particular place of employment. So cases are, I think, you know are quite useful. There’s an organization for editors of publications, it’s an international organization called COPE it’s the Committee on Publication Ethics. And one of the great strengths of that organization is they publish cases of previous ethical issues that have been raised and then how those have been addressed.

[00:12:51.720] – Sam Dragga

So it gives guidance to current editors as to how they might address or approach particular ethical issues that are raised and it also demonstrates–

[00:13:07.290] – Janice Summers

Is there a link that we can share with people?

[00:13:08.850] – Sam Dragga

Yeah. If you go to

[00:13:12.780] – Janice Summers


[00:13:14.010] – Sam Dragga will take you to the COPE website and there you’ll find a variety of resources, but also their list of cases.

[00:13:29.920] – Janice Summers

That’s going to be a question I had, that was going to be one of my questions for you.

[00:13:32.520] – Sam Dragga

OK, yeah, yeah and it also demonstrates the kind of, the scope of ethical questions, you know, things that you might not have thought about as being a potential hazard for you as you operate in your organization.

[00:13:48.990] – Janice Summers

Because I think that’s the other thing, too, for a lot of us, you know, I mean, really, honestly, in the field itself, pretty stand-up people, right?

[00:13:56.890] – Sam Dragga

That’s right.

[00:13:57.360] – Janice Summers

And I think in the profession, just like everybody that I’ve ever met in this profession has been, they really want to do the right thing. It’s kind of written into their DNA. So, everyone, you know, we all think we’re pretty stand-up people and they don’t know if they’re not necessarily aware if they’re doing something that might be unethical.

[00:14:21.360] – Sam Dragga

Right. They might, yeah, and they might, you know, appreciate having the perspective of, you know, reading through previous cases and seeing how different organizations have addressed similar issues, but also to recognize, you know, the wide scope of issues that are out there that perhaps they should be thinking of when they look at their own employment situation. There may be things going on in their organization that they’ve never thought about and maybe there’s, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it that way, or maybe there’s a better way that we could be addressing this particular problem.

[00:15:04.320] – Janice Summers

Yeah, because I see things a certain way, right. Liz asks these really interesting questions I never thought of it that way.

[00:15:12.870] – Sam Dragga


[00:15:13.410] – Janice Summers

I think having that resource to go look at cases that bring up ethical questions is a good way too for us to gain perspective from a lot of people related to ethics.

[00:15:26.670] – Sam Dragga

Right, right, because, you know, if we’ve been doing it this way for 5 years, 10 years, that’s the way we’ve always done it and so, yeah you do.

[00:15:38.670] – Liz Fraley

When you think that’s the proper way, because that’s what’s been around you.

[00:15:42.480] – Janice Summers

Because you’ve always done it that way.

[00:15:44.070] – Sam Dragga

Yeah, that’s the way we’ve always done it.

[00:15:46.200] – Janice Summers

Nobody’s complained before.

[00:15:50.100] – Sam Dragga

Yes, right, So yeah so I think that, you know, familiarizing yourself with resources and talking to people, you know, talking to other people about ethical issues, practicing ethics so that these issues are, you know, sort of salient in your mind, not a constant worry for you, but something that you are alert to because there are ethical issues that will crop up on the job and they can go ignored or they can be addressed.

[00:16:27.120] – Janice Summers

Better to address them than ignore things.

[00:16:31.090] – Sam Dragga

But, you know, there are, you know, things that, sometimes you don’t recognize that maybe that’s a problem. I had a reviewer once who, having reviewed a manuscript, said, I really like this manuscript, and I shared, you know, had read the manuscript and was deciding on, you know, whether we would publish it or not and recommended it for publication. But it hadn’t yet been published, and he and the individual wrote and said, you know, I really like this article, and I shared it with my team. And I had to write back and say, well, that’s a problem, because until the article is published, it’s really private and it’s something between the author and the journal and should not be circulated widely until it’s published and the author has agreed to have it published in the version that is finally accepted for publication.

[00:17:40.210] – Janice Summers


[00:17:40.930] – Sam Dragga

And that was something that the reviewer had never thought of. Oh, that as a reviewer, I have an obligation of confidentiality with these manuscripts that I’m reviewing. And it hadn’t occurred to me as an editor that, that was something that I had to tell a reviewer, but it was in this case and you know, fortunately, that was the only case. And the reviewer, you know, promptly wrote back and said, oh, yes, OK, I recognize that was the mistake, you know, and fortunately, my team is only, you know, two other people. So, OK, fine. But, you know, lesson learned, I learned the lesson, OK, that’s something that I have to talk to reviewers about as the editor but also something that, that reviewer learned.

[00:18:35.480] – Janice Summers

So that’s kind of like, you know, one of those if you’re hiring manager or if you’re leading a research project, that part of your onboarding practice if you’re bringing in researchers is to have a conversation about ethics and to help them understand what the ethics are in their role and responsibility and the ethics of the project right?

[00:18:56.870] – Sam Dragga

Exactly. And you’ll see that, you know, like major employers have ethics training, they have ethics resources. Now in some organizations, it’s just sending the new employee to the ethics website and you know

[00:19:12.500] – Janice Summers

It’s a piece of paper H.R. has employees sign.

[00:19:15.680] – Sam Dragga

Right, yeah.

[00:19:17.690] – Liz Fraley


[00:19:18.020] – Sam Dragga

You know, it’s like, you know, the terms of agreement when you download new software.

[00:19:24.200] – Janice Summers

That’s very different than actually having a conversation with your employers or your new research about their roles and responsibilities and ethics, and you don’t have to have it like all the time. When you are onboarding, it might be a good practice, right?

[00:19:39.060] – Sam Dragga

Absolutely, yes. Yeah.

[00:19:42.720] – Janice Summers

And then it’s not such a difficult conversation.

[00:19:45.640] – Sam Dragga

Right, right. So, yes, so to familiarize reviewers with their ethical responsibilities. And it was one of the things that prompted a co-author of mine, Dan Voss and we wrote an article for Intercom, which is STC’s monthly magazine several years ago on the multiple ethical responsibilities in research, the responsibilities that, you know, authors have, but also that reviewers and editors have and that readers have because readers have responsibilities when they interact with research. 

[00:20:25.990] – Janice Summers

They do, I agree. They need to ask questions and they need to look for certain things. So what are some of the things that are really key and critical when it comes to research, when you’re embarking on a research project, when it comes to ethics?

[00:20:42.400] – Sam Dragga

Well, there’s I think a number of things, and it depends on the kind of research project that you’re doing, whether it’s a qualitative or a quantitative research project. But you want to make sure that you are thorough in exploring the existing research so that and again, you don’t want to waste the journalists time to which you are going to submit the manuscript, you don’t want to waste your readers time by making them read something that is like empty of new information. Time is the thing that we don’t get back. And so it’s the thing that you don’t want to waste because you can’t I mean, these are, you know, finite moments of our lives, and if you waste the time of other people, I mean, that itself, I think is unethical. So you want to make sure that you are giving people value for the time that they give you.

[00:21:45.520] – Sam Dragga

So as a researcher, I mean, I think that’s a primary consideration going in. Do I have something that’s important to say? Do I have a topic or a project that is important for readers to know about? And if you don’t have that confidence, then that’s not a research project that you should be starting. You shouldn’t be trying to publish just for the sake of publication. You should be trying to publish because you have something that your readers need to know in order to live their lives better and make better decisions, take appropriate action, etc. And if you don’t have that kind of confidence, then I think that’s your first ethical question.

[00:22:32.200] – Sam Dragga

And then you want to make sure that you are inclusive in the research that you’re doing so that you are inclusive of the existing research that’s been done, but also to make sure that you are looking for researchers who are oftentimes disregarded or who might not have been given the opportunity to publish in the most prestigious or available journals. And so to make sure that the scholars that you are citing in your research are diverse and truly representative of the field as it is being practiced. So that you have a broad representation and broad perspective going into your topic and then to make sure that you are inclusive when you are looking for participants in your research. So–

[00:23:32.230] – Janice Summers

I think just because I really want you to help emphasize this point, these last couple of points that you’ve made.

[00:23:41.290] – Sam Dragga


[00:23:41.800] – Janice Summers

And that is, cause is really easy for us to get into our narrow focus or our comfort zone or our field of friends.

[00:23:48.580] – Sam Dragga


[00:23:49.360] – Janice Summers

And it’s really important that we make a conscious effort to be uncomfortable and to stretch beyond our limited view and our limited circle and intentionally seek out people who haven’t been recognized aren’t the usual suspects.

[00:24:08.150] – Sam Dragga


[00:24:08.510] – Liz Fraley

If we’re going to make claims, we need to know that it’s not just your perspective and your friend’s perspective. You need to make sure that it has that reach that you think it does.

[00:24:20.860] – Janice Summers

Right. And it also adds, I think, for richer paper

[00:24:24.850] – Liz Fraley


[00:24:24.850] – Janice Summers

You’re working on the research project, adds for a richer content that you’re creating, and the research that you’re doing, I mean, that’s how you get strength, it’s in diversity right?

[00:24:36.820] – Sam Dragga

Right, that you aren’t just citing all the usual suspects but that, you know, the people that you know already, but that you are making this deliberate effort to reach beyond your circle of friends, your circle of familiar scholars, the most frequently cited scholars. You know, yes, you can and should include the most frequently cited scholars, but also you want to make sure that you are reaching beyond that circle. So that you are truly inclusive and representative of the wide scope of people participating in this field and contributing their research to it. And then you want to make sure that when you choose your participants, you are inclusive and are again representing the population that you are studying in your research. And then you want to make sure when you write and when you publish, that you are making your material available to the widest circle of readers. So that your information is accessible to people whose lives, jobs, livelihoods might be influenced or improved by the research that you’re doing. So that again, it doesn’t benefit just the small circle of the usual scholars, but that it reaches out and has as much impact as possible.

[00:26:17.400] – Janice Summers

Right, and that applies to research no matter who you do the research for.

[00:26:23.310] – Sam Dragga


[00:26:23.610] – Janice Summers

Whether it’s academia or its professional for your company

[00:26:27.990] – Sam Dragga


[00:26:28.410] – Janice Summers

Project that you’re working on. All of those factors, I think play, it’s no different.

[00:26:36.390] – Sam Dragga

Yeah, right, and you want to make sure that you are inclusive of people who might have various kinds of difficulties accessing the information so that you again, make this conscious and deliberate effort to be inclusive, to make accessible the work that you’re doing.

[00:26:58.440] – Liz Fraley


[00:26:58.820] – Sam Dragga

And to bring people into the field who might otherwise and historically have been left out.

[00:27:10.480] – Janice Summers

And that’s, you know— In just designing the basic research to begin with, when you’re planning this out, all of these things should be baked into your plan, right?

[00:27:24.400] – Sam Dragga

Yes, and then you write in a way that allows your research to be as accessible as possible. And that means not just to readers here in the United States reading English, but you write in a way that would promote ready translation so that your work can then become available to people whose language is not English, so that the benefits of this research don’t just reach people in developed nations, but people in developing nations as well.

[00:28:07.380] – Janice Summers


[00:28:07.900] – Sam Dragga

And the more–if your writing is dense and, you know, virtually incomprehensible to English speakers, you have made that material, you know, far more difficult for interpreters and translators, and it limits the scope of the people who might benefit from your research.

[00:28:35.550] – Janice Summers

Now, if I were–

[00:28:36.720] – Sam Dragga

So using things like simplified English, you know, where writing as much as possible in simplified English, so the translation is more readily available.

[00:28:44.280] – Janice Summers

Right, right, making things easy. Easy to comprehend, easy to understand.

[00:28:49.800] – Sam Dragga


[00:28:50.620] – Janice Summers

Yeah, minimalism is always a nice thing to apply.

[00:28:54.270] – Sam Dragga


[00:28:55.710] – Janice Summers

It’s a brilliant exercise. We are not here to talk about that. One of the–don’t let me go down that rabbit hole. I’ll start beating my drum. Now back to this so I’m thinking about, so I want to like say there’s a topic that I want to do some research on. Is there a place or is there somebody that I can go to that could help like review things, is there an ethical guide? How would I? Because I would want to make sure that I’m doing the right thing, right?

[00:29:29.880] – Sam Dragga


[00:29:30.460] – Janice Summers

Is there an ethical guide who is the Guru of ethics that I could go to? How would you do that?

[00:29:37.560] – Sam Dragga

Well, this committee of journal editors, these are editors of the journals in the field of technical communication who have newly come together at the prompting of Derek Ross of Auburn University, who’s the editor of Communication Design Quarterly. He brought us together and said, you know, there are issues of diversity that we ought to address, issues of ethics that we ought to address. And we could do it better if we were doing it together and so that group of editors has been meeting to look at ways that reviewer guidelines might be improved, ethical practices, act of manuscript submission might be improved to promote diversity and ethics. And that committee of editors has just this last Monday offered its first lunch with editors where anybody can come in and ask questions of these editors and address just those kinds of issues and can meet for, you know, virtual mentoring.

[00:31:00.120] – Sam Dragga

And they are planning on doing more of these in the future and then, like, posting the conversation that occurs so that people can go back and look at sessions that they might have missed. And they’re also talking about putting together a YouTube channel where some of this information would also be available. So that’s, I think, a ready resource that new authors might take advantage of.

[00:31:32.460] – Janice Summers

Even old authors.

[00:31:34.740] – Sam Dragga

There’s also an international organization called Author Aid that allows published scholars to offer mentoring to new scholars.

[00:31:50.220] – Janice Summers

Oh, nice.

[00:31:51.120] – Sam Dragga

And so if you are a scholar who would like to mentor emerging scholars, you can apply and enter your information and you create a profile on their website. And then individuals who want a mentor do the same. And then through this website, through the Author Aid website, you find each other and you make a connection and then your communication is all through their website, the exchange of files is all through their website so it’s all safe and it’s tracked. And you can also, you know, meet through, you know, Zoom sessions if you want live to meet with your mentor. So that’s another opportunity, and there are a number of again, that’s an international organization. And it’s a great opportunity for scholars, especially scholars from developing nations who often don’t have access to the kinds of library resources or the kinds of mentoring opportunities that scholars, for example, in the United States or Europe might enjoy.

[00:33:04.890] – Janice Summers

I think those are great references for all of our listeners and watchers, because even if you’re not writing research right now and you’re not conducting research say you’re in the professional field. Still understanding where those ethics are coming from when you’re reading research that will influence,  research touches all of us.

[00:33:28.560] – Sam Dragga


[00:33:29.100] – Janice Summers

Even if we’re not participating or writing it, yeah, it’s going to come in to influence you at some point, so having access to being able to listen to questions that other people may be asking also I think is very beneficial for people. I think those are key resources.

[00:33:46.630] – Sam Dragga

Thank you, yeah and you are right that research affects us, you know, positively and negatively and you know, good research as well as bad research, affects us. You know, we suffer from bad research in, you know, oftentimes. So it’s important that we be as careful as possible about making sure that there’s this little bad research out there as possible and so that people benefit from, you know, legitimate information as opposed to disinformation.

[00:34:22.540] – Janice Summers

 And personally I like the fact that you’re having conversations because, you know, I’m kind of geared towards having a conversation. That’s what Room 42 is about you guys, because there’s a lot of other juicy information that comes out and so making them raw principle and searchable, I think is going to be a huge benefit for a lot of people.

[00:34:45.060] – Sam Dragga


[00:34:45.370] – Janice Summers

Because oftentimes you don’t know you have a question until somebody else asks.

[00:34:48.940] – Sam Dragga

Exactly. Until somebody else ask that same question and you think, oh yeah. And then you might have a follow-up question to that, or you might, you know, challenge the answer that you get or ask that individual to elaborate. So yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity. And I think having the multiple perspectives of various editors is always, I think, a good thing. So as I said, the first editors will meet the editors Zoom lunch was Monday and another one will be scheduled with, you know, with a different group of I think they did 3 editors this last time. So it’s a different constellation of editors each time.

[00:35:34.510] – Janice Summers


[00:35:35.440] – Sam Dragga

Yeah. So you can get different perspectives

[00:35:39.820] – Janice Summers

I need to put this on my list of things to go watch.

[00:35:42.650] – Liz Fraley


[00:35:43.420] – Janice Summers

Yeah. And I don’t have a website for that or the Zoom invitation, you know, in my head. But if somebody wants to email me the next time an invitation comes up, I’d be happy to share the connection to it. Yeah.

[00:35:57.520] – Janice Summers

Cool. So, what happens if I’ve written my research, I’ve done my research, written my research paper, and all of a sudden the ethical flags go up?

[00:36:11.230] – Sam Dragga

Yeah, and that happened, you know, and that can happen. And so you always need to be prepared to abandon a research project because it has become ethically flawed. And that can be painful sometimes, especially if it’s like a dissertation, you know so and that’s where going into the dissertation project, good mentoring is essential. And ideally, you’ve come out of your thesis or dissertation training knowing, you know, what are the ingredients for you know, ethical research that have to be covered. But if you make mistakes or overlook things like getting human consent forms, then, you know nobody wants to publish that because that research is unethical.

[00:37:03.970] – Sam Dragga

So you do in fact, need to be prepared to abandon a project that you can’t save. But there may be ways to save a project. And that’s where you can talk to scholars in the field who have published you might have a mentor in your organization or at your academic institution that you can look to and say, you know, I’ve run into this problem, how exactly might I address it? Or if you are in the process of working with an editor at a journal, you might ask the editor and say, I’ve run into this problem.

[00:37:41.830] – Sam Dragga

You know, what do I do about this? Where do I go for help with this? You know, how do I negotiate this ethical problem in a way that would make the article still publishable?

[00:37:57.000] – Liz Fraley


[00:37:57.880] – Sam Dragga

But that’s where, you know, having those relationships where you can get good advice is important.

[00:38:04.420] – Janice Summers


[00:38:05.140] – Sam Dragga

Because the situation will change. I mean, you know, I can’t give you a yes or no answer to that question or a simple answer to that question, because it’s all contingent on the issues involved.

[00:38:18.430] – Janice Summers

Yeah, it’s kind of a soft target there’s a lot of factors that influence you.

[00:38:22.330] – Sam Dragga

Yeah, yeah.

[00:38:23.420] – Janice Summers

It’s in art more than in science.

[00:38:26.170] – Sam Dragga

Absolutely, yeah.

[00:38:29.040] – Janice Summers

Yeah, a lot of factors, so it’s not I mean, you don’t want to brush it under the carpet, you don’t want to hide it away, you have to deal with it because those things can really come back and be deleterious–

[00:38:45.510] – Sam Dragga

Right, yeah.

[00:38:46.200] – Janice Summers

–in ways that you don’t realize.

[00:38:48.750] – Sam Dragga

Right, and it’s also putting bad research out there. Research which has ethical problems, it sets a bad example, you know, and every time you publish, you have to keep in mind that you are creating an example for subsequent scholars. So your article that gets published in the Journal is something that somebody else is going to read and they’re going to look at it as an example of research that they could do.

[00:39:18.090] – Janice Summers

Yes. It becomes a touchstone.

[00:39:20.430] – Sam Dragga


[00:39:21.600] – Janice Summers

And it becomes a touchstone for a behavior or, you know, like we all influence we read these articles and they shape our minds, right, and our visions so they are touchstones.

[00:39:32.700] – Sam Dragga

Right, and so if you’re doing something that’s ethically slippery, you create a new and lower standard for the ethics of your organization, for the ethics of your field, and yeah, and that’s something that you don’t want to do.

[00:39:53.820] – Janice Summers

No, no. So trying to be published just to be published is not a good practice. It’s… You can end up into that slippery slope and nobody wants a slimy rocks nobody wants slimy Dodge stones

[00:40:09.300] – Liz Fraley

Funny even if you think it helps you, it hurts.

[00:40:11.610] – Janice Summers

Yeah in the end it hurts

[00:40:13.560] – Liz Fraley

Cause people will see that yeah

[00:40:15.120] – Janice Summers

Because eventually it comes back to you.

[00:40:16.530] – Sam Dragga

Well, it makes people less interested in the next thing you publish, which may in fact, be more interesting, more valuable

[00:40:26.760] – Janice Summers

Right, and might perfectly fine but because you’ve–

[00:40:30.570] – Sam Dragga

I just read something that was, you know, a recycled version of something that you published earlier. And it looks like you just, you know, like teased out, you know, some unimportant piece of information from it, from an earlier study. And, you know, it was really kind of a waste of my time. Now, I’m not going to read the next thing you write because it was invaluable for me. And now I might miss something that is valuable.

[00:40:53.920] – Liz Fraley


[00:40:56.250] – Liz Fraley

And you’ve created this model of people who publish things that shouldn’t be published and while your article was getting published, somebody else’s article was not getting published because, you know, because we’re talking about finite opportunities here for people to publish.

[00:41:14.030] – Liz Fraley


[00:41:15.580] – Janice Summers

We all have to be responsible.

[00:41:17.670] – Sam Dragga


[00:41:18.230] – Janice Summers

Did you have one question that you want to ask Liz? 

[00:41:22.400] – Liz Fraley

I know we are so out of time but like this is so fascinating, right and they just keep coming. So I just have one last one because we’re talking about citing other people and so what about citing your own work?

[00:41:38.550] – Sam Dragga

Oh, yeah, there are people who like to cite their own research for purposes of building up the number of citations that their research enjoys and that I think is an unethical practice. So I am always very cautious about citing my own research. Now, if I’ve done something in a study that I think is absolute, you know, that is absolutely essential, as you know, previous reading that someone should know about then it seems legitimate. But I will often, you know, if and when I cite myself, I’m often critical of it because, you know, I’ve learned more than I knew when I published that, and so, you know, I will point out the limitations of that earlier research because now I know more.

[00:42:36.770] – Liz Fraley

Fair enough. That’s a good, I like that.

[00:42:39.260] – Sam Dragga

But there–but it is the case that, you know, there there are some people and you can tell, you know, when some when someone is just, you know, like filling their article with citations of their own research. And it’s surprising sometimes, you know, who engages in that, you know, that you would think that, you know, you’re a prominent scholar. You don’t need to be doing this. But it might be the practice that they learned, you know, might have been the practice that was encouraged at their institution at their place of employment.

[00:43:14.990] – Janice Summers

Sometimes people get lazy. Yeah.

[00:43:18.170] – Liz Fraley

Yeah. Pressure is there.

[00:43:20.060] – Sam Dragga

But it’s self-aggrandizement, and, you know, I guess I was, you know, taught to be different.

[00:43:29.270] – Janice Summers

I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and its been such a great information

[00:43:32.720] – Sam Dragga

well, it’s been the fastest 45 minutes of my life. So–

[00:43:38.180] – Janice Summers

I can’t believe we are already over time. But I really, truly, actually really enjoyed talking to you. And I appreciate the approach to ethics that it’s not so scary.

[00:43:50.600] – Sam Dragga


[00:43:51.470] – Janice Summers

And it’s not like the police, it’s like these are good things and we should all encourage more conversations in ethics

[00:43:58.190] – Sam Dragga

Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.

[00:44:00.050] – Janice Summers

I will love to have you back again because I think we didn’t get a chance to really talk about everything.

[00:44:07.980] – Sam Dragga

Okay, okay.

[00:44:08.720] – Liz Fraley


[00:44:09.430] – Janice Summers

There is so much more like in edit, the editors and all kinds of stuff that I want to talk to you about that we don’t have time right now, but I would love to have you back.

[00:44:18.278] – Sam Dragga


[00:44:18.350] – Liz Fraley

That was amazing.

[00:44:20.060] – Janice Summers

 Yeah, yeah. It’s such a privilege to talk to you, Sam.

[00:44:23.840] – Sam Dragga

It’s been a joy thanks.

[00:44:27.130] – Liz Fraley

Thanks for joining and we would love to see you all again.

In this episode

Dr. Sam Dragga is Professor Emeritus of Technical Communication at Texas Tech University (TTU). He is co-author of The Essentials of Technical Communication (Oxford University Press, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2018, 2021), Reporting Technical Information (Oxford University Press, 2002, 2006), and Editing: The Design of Rhetoric (Baywood, 1989). He was Editor-in-Chief (2016-2020) of Technical Communication the quarterly research journal of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and series editor of the Allyn & Bacon Series in Technical Communication (19 titles). He has authored or co-authored a score of articles in journals and collections on such topics as professional ethics and intercultural communication. He is a Fulbright Specialist, a Fellow of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW), and a recipient of STC’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication and the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Best Book in Technical and Scientific Communication and Best Article Reporting Historical Research in Technical and Scientific Communication. He served as president of ATTW (1997-1999) and initiated the organization’s annual conference in 1998. He also served as chair of the TTU Department of English (2002-2012).

This conversation will focus on the ethics of researching and publishing in technical communication—issues that might cause anxiety, especially for individuals new to the field or new to publishing. We will consider the perspectives and obligations of authors, journal editors, and manuscript reviewers and examine ethical practices in developing research projects, writing and revising manuscripts, and interacting with editors and reviewers.




Sam’s author page on Amazon

Advice and Resources from Sam

Sam says:

Lynn Worsham identifies frequent problems with research manuscripts, from minimal citation and anecdotal evidence to distorted and undeveloped arguments in “Fast-Food Scholarship” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Amy Benson Brown focuses on three questions (What Kind of Feedback Do You Need? What Stage of the Writing Process Are You In? Who Are Potentially Helpful Readers?) in “How to Get a Useful Critique“ (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and Wendy Troop-Gordon offer practical advice from their professional experience as editors of research journals and members of editorial boards in “21 Dos and Don’ts for Journal Writers and Reviewers” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Theresa MacPhail offers clear and practical advice about how to read reviews of your manuscript and revise effectively in a series of three articles:

“Coping with Criticism”

“Deciphering Reviewer Comments”

“Techniques for Easier and Faster Revision”

Resources mentioned during the show

COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) – for case reading and practice

Author AID – international organization of published scholars who offer mentoring to new scholars

American Medical Writers Association’s Code of Ethics

Society for Technical Communication’s Ethical Principles

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