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Ethics of Publishing Case Histories

To the Editor:

I’m concerned by the decision to spotlight in the May column a young member’s ethical violations in overcharging a public agency. While I agree with the decision, the manner in which the case was presented disturbs me.

The Committee on Professional Conduct and the Board of Direction both agreed “that no publication of the case appear in an ASCE publication.” While commendable for raising member awareness of fraud, the publication, even in general terms, conflicts with the case’s resolution. I would have preferred to see the case study remain protected in accordance with the board’s decision.

I believe that the decision of the board should have bound the Society’s staff. In revealing unprofessional conduct, we undercut our own pledge and credibility.

Kerry Peterson, P.E.
Seattle

Thank you for your letter and for your interest in ASCE’s ethics case studies. The questions you raise about the suitability of publishing details of an actual ASCE ethics investigation speak to the very essence of this column, and in view of the fact that other members may share your concerns, we have decided to devote this column to your letter and to asce’s ethics education activities as a whole.

In cases where an ASCE member is found to have violated the Code of Ethics, subsection 3.0.9.4 of the Society’s rules of policy and procedure allows the Board of Direction or the Executive Committee to determine whether notice of the disciplinary action should appear in a Society publication. Publication is a form of disciplinary sanction that is typically reserved for more serious violations of the Code of Ethics, but the notice is also intended to benefit the Society in ways unrelated to the punishment of a particular member. These notices keep the ASCE membership informed of the Society’s disciplinary activities, and in cases where the notices are published with a name they alert the engineering community that a particular individual within the community has engaged in unethical conduct. Publication also serves as a statement to all Society members of the profession’s commitment to ethical conduct and reminds readers that individuals who violate the Code of Ethics may be subject to disciplinary sanctions.

Even though it authorizes the publication of actions, subsection 3.0.9.4 limits the amount of information that may be revealed in such notices. According to this subsection, notices may include a statement of the circumstances of the case, but if the member’s name is included the published notice may give no more than a factual statement of the disciplinary action and only such facts as may be found in a publicly available document, for example, a court ruling. These restrictions reflect the Society’s policy of exercising discretion in investigations of potential ethical violations and avoiding unnecessary disclosure of an individual member’s activities.

In view of these competing objectives, asce’s published notices of disciplinary action have traditionally been restricted to a brief recitation of facts, such as follows:

On April 1, 2005, as a result of proceedings conducted in accordance with article 3 of the Society’s bylaws and rules of policy and procedure, the Executive Committee found that John Q. Member, of Anytown, USA, violated canon 6 of the ASCE Code of Ethics, and it voted to suspend him for a period of three years.

While this statement is sufficient notice from a “punishment” standpoint, many members have seen these notices as failing to serve the “Society benefit” goals of publication. These critics argue that such notices prevent readers from making informed assessments of a member’s professional conduct and lack the specificity needed to act as a useful deterrent to similar conduct. Moreover, many members have argued that these official notices fail to achieve an even more important goal offered by publication, namely, to serve as an educational tool for the benefit of all members.

The study of professional ethics involves the application of basic philosophical principles to a variety of actual situations. Although no ethics course or manual could describe every possible scenario in which professional ethics may play a role, case studies are an invaluable aid to students and practicing engineers alike, both as an exercise in ethical thinking and as a reference point for decision making in similar situations. Given the importance of ethics case studies, many have argued that asce’s disciplinary notices should provide enough detail about the facts and circumstances of a case so that readers can understand and learn from the ethical issues involved in the disciplinary action.

ASCE News debuted this monthly column in 2005 to provide an ethics education resource that would be readily available to all members of the Society. While the column has discussed hypothetical questions and addressed topics of historical interest, its focus has been on case studies drawn from actual ethics cases investigated by the Committee on Professional Conduct. The material has been presented in the belief that descriptions of actual cases where ASCE members have been guilty of ethical lapses are of greater educational value.

At the same time, the writers of this column have been conscious that publication in too much detail might violate the restrictions imposed by asce’s rules of policy and procedure and have the effect of creating a harsher “punishment” than was handed down by the Board of Direction or the Executive Committee, particularly in cases where the actual verdict was to omit publication of the action. In an effort to avoid this result, the writers of this column have taken the following steps to preserve the anonymity of the parties and circumstances involved:

  1. Except for rare, high-profile cases in which information about an investigation has been made publicly available through other sources, no detailed information pertaining to the date, location, or parties involved in the activities is provided.
  2. While each article reports accurately on the general nature of the ethics violation and the resulting disciplinary action, factual details about the accused member and his or her actions are disguised or modified to the greatest extent possible.
  3. To discourage readers hoping to identify the subject of a particular case study by connecting the summary to an official notice of disciplinary action, the Committee on Professional Conduct has directed that no ethics case appear as a case study until at least one full year has elapsed from the date of final disposition of the case, and many of the articles appearing in this column are drawn from cases dating as far back as the early 1970s.

By presenting actual case studies in general terms, with details changed and after a sufficient time has passed since the actual decision, it is our hope that this column strikes a reasonable balance between the Society’s aim to avoid unnecessary disclosure of a member’s conduct and its interest in providing educational resources in the area of engineering ethics.

ASCE welcomes your feedback on this column or on any matter pertaining to engineering ethics and education. Please write to ASCE, 1801 Alexander Bell Drive, Reston, VA 20191, Attention: General Counsel. The number for our ethics hotline is (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. 

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