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Due to recurring problems with questions that contain allegations against named individuals or organisations, we moderators would like to implement a policy against these.

This should only affect a small fraction of questions that cause a disproportionate amount of trouble. In this post, we are asking if you see any problems with the proposed policy or whether there is anything else you propose to change. (If yes, please post an answer.)

Policy

Moderators will delete a question without warning if all of the following apply:

  • It contains allegations on an individual target, which can be a person, university, journal, publisher, company, or similar. As decided separately here, this includes self-allegations.

  • The allegations are severe, i.e., the reported behaviour is misconduct, criminal, or highly unethical or highly unprofessional. Honest mistakes, sloppiness, and quirks do not count. Neither do things like “Is Publisher X predatory?”, unless containing specific severe accusations, but they should still be closed as a duplicate of this or a shopping question.

  • The information in the question apparently allows others to identify the target or allows the target to identify the asker beyond any reasonable doubt without intensive research. This includes the asker’s username and thus all questions asked by users with what looks like a real name. This can be through explicit naming, a clear relation to the named author (e.g., their supervisor), a paper title, or similar.

  • The allegations have not already been widely reported or discussed (on news media, blogs, etc.).

Such questions can be re-asked when they are sufficiently anonymised. However, anonymised questions may still be unsuitable for this site for several reasons.

When you encounter such a question, please:

  • Leave a guiding comment linking to this policy.
  • Flag it for moderator attention.
  • If you can additionally vote to close or delete it, do so.

Rationale

Going by experience, for almost every such question at least one of the following applies:

  1. The asker soon regrets posting the question.
  2. The question harms the asker.
  3. The question causes a huge amount of debate.
  4. The asker did not ask the question in good faith.
  5. The question should be closed for being opinion-based, a shopping question, or depending on individual factors.
  6. The question abuses this site as platform for public shaming.

As a result, such questions cause a lot of unnecessary grievance and moderation work, in particular through self-vandalisation, disassociation requests (an action requiring an SE employee) or redaction requests (an action requiring two moderators), or escalating comment debates.

In Cases 1–3, the question can be anonymised to avoid the issues and then re-asked. Thus nobody is prevented from asking a valid question. In Cases 4–6, no big harm is done by deleting.

Questions I would like to answer

  • Why doesn’t closing suffice? – Closing primarily prevents answers, which is not where the problems with such questions are. Moreover, these problems cannot be solved by editing the question as the information still sticks around. Deletion with a clear reference to this policy is the quickest way to start with a clean state.

  • Why does identifying information only count when it is in question or username? For example, what if I can identify the asker via their profile or similar? – We cannot predict every research angle at this and have to draw a line somewhere. Also the post content and username are the things which requests for moderator action usually are about – since those are the things that are within our control and only our control. (Note that while the username can be changed, there are restrictions on this and it can still be visible through comment replies and similar.)

  • Why don’t you give any examples for such questions? – Most previous questions matching the above criteria have already been deleted or redacted, so there will be strong survival bias in the selection. Moreover, I do not want to give them extra exposure. Here is a meta discussion about such a question.

  • I am an experienced user using my real name as my account name. Does this mean I am forced to make a sockpuppet to ask such a question? – Yes. This is a valid use of sockpuppets and it’s probably for the better. Just ensure that your accounts do not interact. Further reading.

  • This is censorship. The world must know the truth about … – This site is neither suited nor intended as a news platform. Even if your allegations are completely accurate and severe, they simply do not belong here. We can help you with how to deal with them, but we do not need names for that.

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  • The only problem I see with this is that knowing specific information is often important for advising how to proceed in a given case. Like, if a university is in the southern US many things that are completely unethical, and moreover illegal in e.g. Germany, are both normal and not illegal. Full anonymization causes problems with those sorts of questions, but the benefits outweigh the costs at least on the individual institution level and providing a region is usually not enough to identify an institution. – Please stop being evil Aug 1 '20 at 18:26
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    @Pleasestopbeingevil: I think you addressed your own concern pretty well. In my experience, while some details are often necessary of course, it’s never so much to uniquely identify the target. – Wrzlprmft Aug 2 '20 at 7:56
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    "Most previous questions matching the above criteria have already been deleted or redacted"... does this not mean that the problem already has a solution? – Mowgli Aug 2 '20 at 14:59
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    @Mowgli: Depends on what you consider the problem: On the one hand, we can already deal with people being unhappy about having publicly accused others or identified themselves and we can deal with posts getting out of hand. On the other hand, the problem of all of this causing a lot of unnecessary work, bad blood, and other trouble has no solution yet and is what the proposed policy addresses. – Wrzlprmft Aug 2 '20 at 15:48
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    @Mowgli To me the usefulness of this meta post also extends to anyone questioning why any question is removed under this policy (theirs or someone else's) can be simply pointed here. That's one of the points of meta: to develop a community consensus for future reference. Moderators could just do it, too, by their own consensus and interpretation of other site guidelines, but that's generally not preferred. – Bryan Krause Aug 2 '20 at 17:51
  • I think this is a great idea. Such questions should be removed either way, but having a clear policy on it takes care of it quicker, clearer and with less hassle for those involved. – Mast Aug 4 '20 at 5:56
  • Has this proposed policy gone into effect? If not, what does the process look like from here? – BrtH Aug 18 '20 at 9:44
  • @BrtH: There seems to be broad consensus for the policy, so you can consider it to be in effect already. – Wrzlprmft Aug 18 '20 at 12:05
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As Anonymous Physicist pointed out, it is not clear whether the proposed policy applies to self-allegations. Let’s decide this:

Suggested amendment

This policy shall also apply to questions making self-allegations, i.e., where the target and the asker are identical. All the other criteria must still apply, in particular the self-allegations must be severe and not anonymous for the question to be deleted.

Rationale

There is nothing wrong with questions where people ask about dealing with their own mistakes (like there is nothing wrong with questions about how to proceed after being the victim of misconduct).

However, in the rare event that somebody asks such a question non-anonymously, this leads to a subset of the same problems listed in the question: They regret this, self-vandalise, request redaction or disassociations, or actually harmed themselves by asking. Additionally, applying the policy to self-allegations covers possible cases of impersonation and prevents any cumbersome need to verify identity. Therefore it is a good idea to expand the policy to capture self-allegations.

How to decide

Upvote this answer if you agree with including self-allegations; downvote if you disagree.

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    An additional reason to support this would be the possibility of impersonation. It is much easier to have a blanket rule than to have to decide whether a poster asking as Professor Heisenberg is truly wondering whether his extracurricular chemistry experiments could be considered academic misconduct or whether they are a rival chemist hoping to poison the waters of their tenure bid. A lack of a self-allegation exception lets this circumstance be handled without expecting moderators to drift into an identity-verification role they are not suited for. – Bryan Krause Aug 10 '20 at 17:18
  • Oops, I totally missed that @AnonymousPhysicist already made the impersonation argument already! – Bryan Krause Aug 10 '20 at 17:22
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    @BryanKrause: Yes, but still a good point since I somehow missed to include it. – Wrzlprmft Aug 10 '20 at 17:43
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I suggest explicitly excluding from deletion questions where the asker makes allegations about their own conduct. "Did I do something wrong, and what should I do about it?" is a helpful thing to ask, if sometimes embarrassing.

I admit that this might be problematic if the asker is impersonating someone else; presumably impersonation is already forbidden.

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    That’s a good point as I (and AFAICT none of the other mods) did not consider that this policy includes self-allegations. I totally concur that these questions are completely fine – when asked anonymously. When they are not anonymised, however, askers usually quickly regret this and this leads to a subset of the problems depicted in the question. I therefore actually consider it a good idea to explicitly include this case. Now, since there already has been some voting, I will handle this separately. – Wrzlprmft Aug 4 '20 at 6:15
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    And here we go. – Wrzlprmft Aug 4 '20 at 6:39
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I have a concern with the use of "defamatory" in "The allegations are defamatory, i.e., the reported behaviour is misconduct, criminal, or highly unethical or highly unprofessional." Going by Meriam-Webster or typical use in US law, a defamatory statement is a false statement of fact (i.e. opinion does not count).

It'd be nice if we could avoid having the site be a venue for defamation, but determining whether a statement is false or not is often impractical, so having the rest of the clause resting on this meaning of the word is tricky. On the other hand, many will likely interpret "defamatory" as just "harmful to someone's reputation", which I assume is the intended meaning in the policy. Now, this is a clunky phrase, and I can't think of a precise synonym. However, in connection with "allegations", the word "serious" seems to have the right implications.

Hence, I suggest using "The allegations are serious, ..." instead of "The allegations are defamatory, ...". If there's a desire to keep "defamatory" in there somewhere, then "The allegations are serious or defamatory, ..." would work.

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    Good point; I followed your suggestion. FWIW, other dictionaries do not require falsehood for defamatory, but of course that does not avoid that somebody misunderstands it. – Wrzlprmft Aug 4 '20 at 16:44
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    @Wrzlprmft Thanks. I think 'severe' is a good word choice. – Anyon Aug 4 '20 at 17:17
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Perhaps this passage

The information in the question (including the asker’s username) allows others to identify the target or allows the target to identify the asker beyond any reasonable doubt without intensive research.

ought to be modified to something like "appears to allow others to identify...". Presumably the mods will be applying this policy based on an assessment of whether usernames, etc, look like they're the names of real people, even if they're actually pseudonyms.

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  • Thanks. I edited the wording. – Wrzlprmft Aug 9 '20 at 8:01
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I suggest removing "Unprofessional" from the criteria as it is very broad and subjective.

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    First note that I intended the highly to also apply to unprofessional and edited to clarify. This of course is still somewhat of a judgement call, but I do not think we can do without it as there are some cases where the other categories do not clearly apply. Also, please mind that for all of this we are usually rely on the depictions of the asker and they usually do not depict a grey zone as the asker is polarised (even when they have a point in their allegations) and probably wouldn’t have asked such an unanonymous question they weren’t. – Wrzlprmft Aug 4 '20 at 6:06

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