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We seem to have a very inconsistent policy with respect to questions on legal issues related to academia.

I am not referring to questions asking for legal advice for a particular situation (these would certainly be off topic as "too localized" or "seeks advice for a very specific situation, so that only someone close to the situation can give an objectively correct answer.") I am referring to questions asking more generally, "Is [specific behavior related to academia] legal?" or "What are the legal issues surrounding [some academic behavior]?"

There are many examples of such questions in the tag. There are also examples of legal questions in other tags, e.g. .

At the same time, we've closed questions that seem just like those, for being off topic as legal questions. For example,

In both of these examples, the behavior in question is clearly related to academia. The close reason for the first one also mentions that it is a hypothetical question; but we don't generally close hypothetical questions if they are perfectly feasible, as this one is. So the issue appears to be that it asks about legal issues.

Inconsistency like this is bad; it makes it difficult for new users to understand whether their question is on topic, and it makes it difficult for not-so-new users to judge when to vote to close. I would therefore like to raise this issue for community discussion:

Are questions on legal issues related to academia on topic?

  • 1
    It seems to me that "Are there any laws against professors publishing scientific papers without acknowledging student's contributions?" is such a poor question that the off-topicness is only one of its problems. With no jurisdiction mentioned, it's unanswerable. It's a theoretical situation, so the OP is not asking about an actual problem they face. And it shows no research nor awareness of related similar questions already answered here. – EnergyNumbers Nov 3 '14 at 15:44
  • Note that there is a Law proposal in commitment phase. I think it should be on-topic as legal issues arise frequently in the academic environment, but some seem to disagree and downvote/close, so it might be good to have some other SE where it is safe to ask such questions. – Franck Dernoncourt Nov 14 '14 at 18:59
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Certainly, random Internet users should not be considered authoritative on legal matters. People needing legal advice for a specific situation should consult a lawyer. The tag excerpt for says as much:

Note that Academia.SE, like any SE site, cannot offer specific legal advice; consult a lawyer for such questions.

On the other hand, SE sites should also not be considered authoritative on moral and ethical matters, but I don't see any complaints about the tag.

I believe questions asking for general legal background about a particular academic issue should be considered on topic here.

For example, I think Could research data fall under the Freedom of Information Act? is an excellent question. Is it illegal to share publications not in the public domain with collaborators? has quite a few upvotes. And I think Are there any laws against professors publishing scientific papers without acknowledging student's contributions? should be reopened.

  • 3
    "People needing legal advice for a specific situation should consult a lawyer." Very true. Nevertheless I'd often say it is good to go there prepared - and a well posed question here may be part of such preparations. (I'm somehow thinking of copyright questions, and of questions where people initially have no clue but are told to check e.g. whether their university has a complaint office etc.) – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 6 '14 at 16:38
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  • I can think of many cases for visas, copyright questions, etc. where the right answer would be "Have you heard of the Q81 visa? Ask your lawyer about it." Further, if someone asks whether a certain law exists somewhere, no one would reasonably conclude from a lack of answers that the law doesn't exist and that they can disregard it, but they could greatly benefit if someone can point them to such a law (or, say, a ruling that seems to say such laws are invalid), which they can then ask a lawyer about as @cbeleites mentions. – cactus_pardner May 9 '18 at 18:44
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I think this is a tricky question because:

  1. Even taking IANAL into account, the correct answer to a legal question is often determined by small details that make it hard to answer generally.
  2. In academic disputes, law is often the nuclear option. Many of the legal questions that I have seen down-voted and closed should really be asking about ethics, policy, or various other sub-legal regulatory mechanisms.
  3. Legal questions can often be complicated, time-consuming, or contentious to answer.

I think that #1 and #2 are good reasons to close legal questions, and #3 is a good reason to apply a higher level of scrutiny than fast and simple things like citation style.

Thus, for example, I voted to close the question about laws regarding publishing without acknowledging a student when I learned that it was just a theoretical question and thus failed both #1 and #2 in my view. I feel that for that question to become high enough quality to be answered meaningfully, more information would have been required about the situation and the reasons for considering the nuclear option in the dispute. Since it was theoretical, however, that couldn't really be provided. A similar but more general topic, however, like, "Are there circumstances where you should resolve a publication dispute legally rather than by working with the journal?" might well make a good question.

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I agree with your self-answer that random internet users aren't legal authorities. However, that doesn't stop people all over the internet from giving their opinions. People working in an area (e.g., academia) often have some awareness of relevant legal issues, and I think a site like StackExchange can benefit from the legal knowledge that people have through experience, even if it carries no official imprimatur.

In other words, I think it's perfectly fine for people to ask about legal issues, and perfectly fine for anyone to give their perspective, with reference to situations they've encountered in the past, and where possible citations to external resources (e.g., legal disclaimers on university websites). If people feel the need to hedge their statements with "I am not a lawyer"-type remarks, fine. It's up the answerer to do that if they feel it necessarey, and up to the questioner to take the advice for what it is (free advice from non-lawyers), and people who don't want to get involved can just not ask or answer such questions. The mere fact that a question happens to deal with legal matters has no bearing on whether or not it should be closed.

  • It's very important then to keep Academia free from opinion (that is not rooted in cited facts). This does clearly not happen. – Raphael Nov 6 '14 at 13:10
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I am one of the users who voted to close one of the questions (the contribution one) linked in this meta question and I just voted to leave it closed. I think I owe some explanation.

First of all, I agree with seteropere's answer here.

The main reason I voted to close and leave it closed is because the OP did not specify the location. As we know, the law varies in different locations.

The following is what I know about Taiwan-specific cases. A few years ago, a graduate student sued a professor for stealing her contribution in a paper. The judge's decision (note here, the judicial system is very different from US.) was that the professor was guilty because the prof had financial gains due to the plagiarism. The financial gain was due to the fact that the prof used the paper to get the promotion (from assistant professorship to associate professorship), thus the salary was increased. Had the professor not used the paper for the promotion, the decision would be different. There was a similar case, the result was different. The judge determined that the student lost the case because the student sued the prof only because the student did not pass the oral exam. Therefore, there was no case. Please do not ask me for the details. The above was what I read from the local news report (in Chinese).

So, you can see that the legal issues are complicated even in the same location. To me, this question is too broad to ask.

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I always have a hard time with general questions related to the law. I believe they are unanswerable without

  1. Pointing out the context (i.e. country or educational system)
  2. Seeking general advice.

This is different from ethical questions. In which, the questions can be general or specific and the answers would give general advice (about the ethicality of the behaviour) and the OP has to verify it against the local law.

Compare a general law-related question

Does this violate any laws at all?

to another legal-issue question

Can the university legally impose this on us, or are they just trying to take advantage of us being foreign? Is there anything we can do?

The first one is very general (without any context) and asks explicitly for a law, which makes it unanswerable. The second question can be answered in general and the OP has to verify it.

Are questions on legal issues related to academia on topic?

If the question is about a specific educational system and seeks general advice about the legality of something, then it should be on-topic. Otherwise it should be off-topic (as in too-localized or too-broad question).

  • 1
    "asks explicitly for a law which makes it unanswerable" - I don't understand why it would be unanswerable. I think a valid answer to this question would be any that specifies the jurisdiction in which it applies, e.g. I might answer, "In the United States, the only applicable laws on a federal level would be copyright-related civil law violations - which would only apply if the student's text and/or graphical description of the computer program was plagiarized. There might be relevant state laws in some cases." – ff524 Nov 5 '14 at 0:47
  • @ff524 Agree with you that we do the same (i.e. localising our answers to what we know) in other non-law questions. I just fail to see how this question by its current content is on-topic. – seteropere Nov 5 '14 at 4:55
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These questions are quite dangerous, simply because it is impossible to give cogent legal advice on a situation without full details of jurisdiction, applicable policies and laws, details of agreements, factual and evidentiary details, etc. Even for a trained lawyer, you would not give legal advice with the information available in these questions.

While I appreciate that users can contribute some legal knowledge, and there is also a warning to users (which they probably are not even aware of), the danger is that answers might induce a questioner to act on legal advice on the site, which turns out to be wrong or inapplicable to their situation, and leads them to suffer harm. That would be a great shame.

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