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I've been struggling recently with the use of "ethics" on this site - I think it's overused to the point of the tag itself being much less useful than it could be (it's currently our 12th most popular tag) as well as answers and comments being bogged down by disambiguating "Is X ethical..." are potentially meaning:

  1. "Is X ethical..." in the proper sense
  2. "Is X a good idea..."
  3. "Is X nice..."
  4. "Can I be upset by X..."
  5. "Is my advisor/classmate/teacher/etc. a less than perfect individual..."

etc. Is there a good way to handle this? I think actual discussions of ethics are interesting, and a violation of academic ethics is often a very serious accusation, so I dislike that it's being heavily diluted in terms of its meaning.

Do we consider heavily editing questions/deleting tags for things that aren't actually about ethics? If so, do we need to fine-tune the current definition?

On the moral code or ethical policy of academia, including values such as avoidance of cheating or plagiarism;

Or do we just let it slide?

Some examples, per Wrzlprmft's request:

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    You're not alone in thinking that we receive too many questions asking about the ethics of an action or a situation, with these having nothing to do with ethics. I usually try to leave a comment when I notice. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 16 '18 at 23:01
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    We should have a common-sense tag. It would be best suitable for a lot of questions tagged with ethics. – The Doctor Mar 16 '18 at 23:33
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    @TheDoctor: That’s a horrible idea as it belittles the asker. You might as well call the tag stupid-question. – Wrzlprmft Mar 17 '18 at 7:36
  • @Wrzlprmft Added some examples. Would dig up more from the annals, but need to pack for a trip – Fomite Mar 17 '18 at 7:40
  • @Wrzlprmft In several cases the question was later reworded and the tag removed, but see e.g. this recent one: academia.stackexchange.com/q/104740/20058 – Massimo Ortolano Mar 17 '18 at 7:43
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    @Wrzlprmft it was supposed to be a joke. – The Doctor Mar 17 '18 at 10:23
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    @TheDoctor: Well, Poe’s Law strikes again. – Wrzlprmft Mar 17 '18 at 15:15
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    Frankly, I'm concerned that this entire discussion may be unethical. – Nat Mar 17 '18 at 18:14
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    @TheDoctor Only after I get my kremlinology and pis-are-not-unknowable-monsters-just-ask tags ;) – Fomite Mar 19 '18 at 3:24
  • @Fomite that is fine for me. And since we have the united-states tag I would like to have the Gallifrey tag. No smile. I'm serious. ;) Wrzlprmft I know. that was completely my fault. After sending the comment I thought "Hmm.. maybe I should've put a smile at the end". – The Doctor Mar 19 '18 at 14:40
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Short Version

  • Re-tag those questions that are clearly not about ethics.
  • Ask the asker whether it is really ethics they wish to ask about.
  • Ethics needs not be “heavy” ethics.

Long Version

Going by the examples provided, I see three kind of problematic questions:

  • Questions that are just mistagged and do not mention ethics in the question body at all, like: Is it considered rude to address a PhD holder as sir or miss? We should just retag these and move on. It is the nature of this site that many questions are poorly tagged (also see this). I have subscribed to for some time just to remove it from questions that have nothing to do with research as per the tag’s definition at all – which is about half of the questions tagged with it. You could do the same with .

    (Sidenote on this question: With etiquette, the line is quite clear to draw in my opinion: Etiquette is a codex, whose rules are mostly orthogonal to ethics. Either somebody asks what the etiquette is or what the ethics are. There may be questions about whether it is ethical to follow etiquette, but apart from that a question is either about one thing or the other. We should however not forget that some cultures hold etiquette to such a high value that it may be difficult for their members to distinguish between etiquette and ethics.)

  • Questions that explicitly asks for the ethics of a situation, even though it seems likely that this is not what the asker actually cares about or at least this is not what we would care about in this situation. (This is a variation of the XY problem.) For example: Is it okay to critique my already published paper? Here we should ask the asker as soon as possible whether they really want to ask about the ethics of the situation, and if yes, why they even consider that something may be unethical or ethically compulsory.

    Now, if the asker confirms their interest in the ethics, I don’t consider this a big problem: The question and answers may not be as interesting, but the asker (or somebody else) can always ask a different question about other aspects. There may be a slight problem with questions where the asker gives us no clue as to why they have ethical concerns and we can answer nothing but: “I see no ethical issues.” or similar. I think we can close such questions as unclear on a per-case basis.

  • Questions which are not about “heavy ethics”, such as: Contacting EiC on social media. In this example, the asker specifies an ethical concern (taking unfair advantage by exploiting their personal connection to the EIC). In this case, ethics in the common meaning of the term certainly applies. One might debate whether ethics in the sense of the tag description applies, i.e., whether we would consider this part of the common academic ethical policy.

    However, the latter is unwritten and at least I wouldn’t know where to draw the line between “heavy” and “light” ethics and whether there is anything to be gained from it. I certainly wouldn’t consider questions on “light” ethics off-topic. In this respect, I would at most edit the tag description a bit (and particularly make the tag wiki a proper tag wiki instead of a Wikipedia copy).

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I suspect some number of “ethics” questions are really “etiquette” questions.

But the big thing to remember here is that tags aren’t static. Users with sufficient reputation can edit tags if they think something is amiss.

So if something isn’t addressing ethics, feel free to adjust the tags appropriately.

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Many questions asking about the ethics of some course of action are really asking whether the action is appropriate in a certain social, cultural, or professional academic context.

As aeismail says, ethics tags that are used in this overly loose fashion can and should be removed. But I would also advocate for liberally editing out the terms "ethics" or "ethical" and replacing them by "appropriate", "tasteful", "polite", etc. as applicable, especially in question titles. This is to avoid confusion about a question's actual substance, and to avoid dilution of the term "ethical".

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