This chapter was written by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon Community College, and is licensed CC-BY 4.0. Thanks to Eleanor Sumpter-Latham, Humanities/Writing Professor at Central Oregon Community College for contributing to this chapter.
Up to this point, you have probably been thinking about technical writing in relation to communicating technical information clearly in an accessible format that meets the needs of its audience. These are important aspects of technical writing, to be sure, but they really only represent the surface of what you need to know. This chapter will introduce some of the ethical issues that may arise as technical writers research, write, revise, and produce a technical document.
Like other professionals, technical writers come up against ethical issues regularly and must make decisions about how to move forward with a project in the face of ethical dilemmas. Writers may encounter situations in which she must ask the following kinds of questions: What kinds of support material and sources are ethical to use? Are open web sources just as valid as academic sources for certain topics? Can email communications be used without permission? What if the writer discovers that a company falsified data about the effectiveness of its product? Should she reveal this in her report or should she take other courses of action? How much should a writer adapt to an audience without sacrificing his own views?
Ethics principles provide the basis for deciding whether “x” is ethical, but in reality, ethical issues are complicated—for example, imagine working for a large company that employs substantial numbers of people in your town, where relatively few other employment opportunities exist. Imagine that the company disposes of its chemical waste in a way that could endanger people’s health. Imagine, further, that the company cannot afford to dispose of this waste more safely and that, if you turn them in, the company will close down, most of the town will be unemployed, and the town’s entire economy will collapse. What do you do? Is the risk of future health problems more serious than the certainty of immediately destroying your town? Which choice is really more ethical?
On a smaller scale, if one way of presenting evidence requires some manipulation of data but seems to be the only way of keeping sales strong enough for your company to survive, what should you do? If you take the unethical route, odds are good that few (or no) people will realize you have done so, and you would not be doing anything illegal. If you take the ethical route, and sales plummet, few people will recognize the ethical issue, but most will clearly understand that you caused the sales decline.