Ethics in Technical Writing

ENC 5937


Paul M. Dombrowski, Associate Professor                            Office: HFA 417G

E-mail:                                         Phone: (407) 823-2279

                                                                                                 Hours: Wed. 6-8, Thurs.2-5


If I feel myself free, it is specifically because I am guided

by my concrete moral evaluation, and I don’t think I am

bound by anything else. . . .  If not me, who?


Andrei Sakharov

Russian H-bomb scientist turned anti-weapons activist,

Nobel Prize in Peace, 1975




Because the role of the modern technical writer and communicator is expanding rapidly and will continue to do so, the ethical scope of the technical writer's responsibility is comparably expanded too.  The technical writer is now seen as an information developer in the formative stages of creating technical information, as a communicator in disseminating information, as an interpreter in explaining information, and as a usability expert in guiding the application of information.  As a result, ethics becomes in involved in technical writing in many ways both traditional and new, obvious and non-obvious. 


In this course we will study the role of ethics in technical writing and communication at various levels.  Ethics is the study of what is right and good, whether as abstract theories or as concrete actions, usually involving deciding a course of action in a dilemma offering several possibilities.  Ethics here is understood broadly as encompassing both conventional theories of ethics and values and value systems.


The course provides a mix of history and theory with real and hypothetical applications.  Our classes will begin with a discussion of the assigned readings to explicate and clarify them, to draw connections with other readings and discussions, and to highlight key points.  We will also discuss applications both within the readings and from our own real or potential experience.  We will strive to understand the complexity and diversity of possible opinion on these theories and applications, though also affirm the need to come to definite decisions personally in real situations.  It is hoped that these discussions will allow each of us to clarify his or her own thinking and ethical judgment, to gain greater confidence in the how and why of judging ethical dilemmas, and to articulate our judgments more effectively.    


There are several basic assumptions we will be operating from throughout this course.  While you might disagree with some of these assumptions, they will nevertheless be assumed in the course.


1.      Ethics cannot be taught in the sense of making one ethical, but it can be talked about in a way that foster taking ethical responsibility.

2.      We personally can gain insights into ethical responsibility from thinkers of the past and thinkers of the present such as fellow class-members.  Open discussion with others helps us to see the complexity of ethical issues and helps to clarify our own judgments. 

3.      Ethics can be both an individual and a social matter, and these two bases can sometimes clash. 

4.      In a sense we are all individual authorities on ethics, and collectively too.  Differences of opinion, values, and judgment will be respected.

5.      Ethics is different from the law yet related to it, so our primary focus will not be on the law. 

6.      Ethical judgment is innately difficult and problematic.      


Much of what we will talk about has to do with writing and words but also with oral and visual communication.  We will also see that Porter and others construe “writing” to include all sorts of electronic, digital, and networked discourse.  We will see  too that many of the ethical issues of traditional technical writing apply also to networked discourse, though internetworking also has its own unique, unprecedented ethical issues.





Dombrowski, Paul M. Ethics in Technical Communication. Needham Hts., MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.


Porter, James E. Rhetorical Ethics and Internetworked Writing. Greenwich, CT: Ablex, 1998.


A collection of reading materials on reserve at the UCF library, and occasional handouts.





·        Two examinations, both take-home, at mid-term and end-of-term (20% each).

·        A written and oral presentation of a real or hypothetical ethical case (paper of medium length) (15 %).

·        A written and oral presentation on approved topic, readings and critical exploration (paper of medium length).  Include supporting material from at least three Internet sites (15%).

·        A short paper on your personal observation of or experience with e-mail or other internetworking activities explaining how they are different from other media, what values are at work, what ethical dilemmas are raised, and how they might be dealt with (10%). 

·        Identify and discuss four Internet sites that you especially appreciate and found useful to this course (other than those cited in the two textbooks, but may include CPSR) (5%).

·        Regular participation in class or small group discussions showing familiarity with the readings, sensitivity to differing viewpoints and values, and thoughtful consideration of the topic at hand (15%).


Paper topics can be on any area that interests you and is relevant to this course.  You might wish to delve into theories, whether historic or contemporary, or you might to focus on particular real instances or concrete applications.  This list suggests the range of possible topics:

·        Postmodernism and its critique and rejection of conventional theory is a hot topic, so you might read about Foucault and what others have said about his works in relation to technical writing.

·        Explore the view that capitalism, free enterprise, and high-tech industrialism are value systems that obscure or deny that they are value systems, and that these values systems need to be critiqued and corrected (David and Graham would be a good starting point).

·        Feminism and its critiques of the values embodied in technical discourse, so you might read works by Sauer, Lay, Allen, Brasseur (Lay would make a good starting point).

·        Contemporary forms of historical theories such as Habermas, Rawls, or neo-Aristotelians.    

·        Compare, contrast, and critique codes of ethics relating to technical discourse.

·        Compare and contrast older views of ethics in technical discourse with contemporary ones in technical communication journals.

·        Explore the position that ethics has nothing to do with discourse about science or technology because they deal with what is unquestionably true and certain.  Or explore the opposite view, that science and technology are value-laden and represent value systems (Lessl and Sullivan would be good starting points).

·        Explore ethics in medical discourse, branching from several articles discussed in class and incorporating questions about objectivizing the medical subject.

·        Summarize the discussions on several major newsgroups or listservs about ethics in scientific or technical communication or in networked discourse.

·        Present a detailed ethical analysis from several theoretical perspectives of the Web sites of major organizations dealing with technology, science, nuclear energy, defense, the environment, or similar matters.

·        Summarize and compare several ethical theories or perspectives out of the secular, Euro-American mainstream such as theological ones (e.g., Christian stewardship) or those associated with particular cultures (e.g., Confucianism) or ideologies (e.g, Marxist).

·        Compare and contrast several Internet sites having to do with applied or professional ethics in a technical or scientific field.

·        Compare and contrast in detail and relate to the readings and discussions in this course several Internet sites having to do with ethics and electronic, digital, or internetworked discourse.  This might include codes of ethics.  Nuances would be crucial here.

·        Explore, analyze, and appraise claims about the similarities and differences between print and internetworked forms of discourse.

In your paper and oral presentation, you will need to make explicit, clear, and prominent the connection to the course, our readings, and class discussion.  Be sure to ask me for approval of your topic to ensure its suitability.





Week 1                        Introduction to Ethics in Technical Communication

                                    Defining what the course is and is not and how we will proceed

                                    Discuss productions and topics


Week 2                        Dombrowski: Relation between Ethics and

Communication and Rhetoric

                                    Dombrowski: “Can Ethics Be Technologized?”

                                    Lessl, “The Priestly Voice”


Week 3                        History and Theory of Ethics:

                                                Aristotle, Virtue

                                                Kant, Deontological


                                                Feminist and Caring

Markel, “Ethics and Tech. Comm.: Foundational”

Clark, “Ethics in Tech. Comm. and Rhetoric”


Week 4                        Nazi "Medical" Science - Origins of Information

                                    Katz, “Ethic of Expediency”

                                    Debakey, “Happiness is Only a Pill Away”


Week 5                        Challenger - Meaning of Information

                                    Example of Feynman’s Special Report for Roger’s Commission

Sauer, “Sense and Sensibility”

Ethics of Care

Stone, “In Search of Patient Agency”   


Week 6                        Star Wars - Unrealistic Claims

Examples of Parnas and Boycott Pledge

                                    Williams, “Intel’s Pentium Chip”

Allen, “Ethics and Visual Rhetoric”


Week 7                        Tobacco - Quibble on Words

Suppression and Control of Information

Orbell, “DoD Tailhook Report”

Codes of Ethics

Web sites of several codes

Bucholz, “Deciphering Codes of Ethics”

Sturges, “Overcoming the Ethical Dilemma”


Week 8                        Oral and Written Presentations on Real or Hypothetical Cases


Week 9                        Mid-term Examination, take-home


Week 10                      Porter: Ethics in Internetworked Writing Classrooms

and Communities

Ethics for Rhetoric and Writing:

Classical and Modern View

                                    Faber, “Intuitive Ethics”

Markel, “An Ethical Imperative for Tech. Comm.”

Wicclair and Farkas, “Ethical Reasoning in Tech. Comm.”


Week 12                      Postmodern Views

Ding, “Marxism, Ideology, Power”

Moore, “Ethical Discourse and Foucault”

Waddell, “Environmental Communication”


Week 13                      Legal and Ethical Issues in Cyberspace

                                    Dennett, “Bias in Clip Art”

                                    Mann, “Achieving Excellence: Cost to Health”

                                    Propose and Discuss Internet Project

                                    Dragga, “Is This Ethical?”


Week 14                      Web Work

                                    Submit short paper on e-mail or other internet experience

                                    Report on Web sites most helpful to you


Week 15                      Exercise of Critical Rhetorical Ethics

Postmodern Commitment and Solidarity

                                    Dragga, “Ethical Intercultural Communication”

                                    Bryan, “Seven Types of Distortion”


Week 16                      Oral and Written Presentations on Internet Projects

                                    Course Evaluations

                                    Course Review

Final Examination, take-home






Technical Communication Quarterly

            Journal of Business and Technical Communication

            IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication

            Technical Communication

            College Composition and Communication

            College English

            Journal of Advanced Composition




Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW), Code of Ethics at


Society for Technical Communication (STC), Ethical Principles for Technical Communicators at


American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), Code of Ethics at


Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), maintains Risk Forum (similar to CPSR’s Risk Digest), Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is interesting for its great depth and complexity in a highly technical engineering context, at


Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE), Professional Communication Society does not as yet have a code of ethics, but the parent organization does have a Code of Ethics at


Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, includes Risks Digest for posting reports on problems involving computers, and sources for ethics on the Internet (mostly re computers) at:






Allen, Nancy. “Ethics and Visual Rhetorics: Seeing’s Not Believing Anymore.” TCQ 5/1 (Winter 1996): 87-105.


Bryan, John. “Seven Types of Distortion: A Taxonomy of Manipulative Techniques Used in Charts and Graphs.”  JTWC, 25/2 (1995): 127-179.


Bucholz, W. J. “Deciphering Professional Codes of Ethics.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 32/3 (1989): 62-68.


Clark, Gregory. “Ethics in Technical Communication: A Rhetorical Perspective.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 30/3 (1987): 190-195.


David, Carol and Margaret Baker Graham. “Conflicting Values.” JBTC 11/1 (January 1997): 21-49.


Debakey, Lois. “Happiness is Only a Pill Away: Madison Avenue Rhetoric Without Reason.” JTWC  10/1 (1980): 25-37.


Dennet, Joann Temple. “Addressing Bias in Clip Art Provided with Popular Software.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 41/4 (December 1998): 270-273.


Ding, Dan. “Marxism, Ideology, Power and Scientific and Technical Writing.” JTWC 28/2 (1998): 133-161.


Dombrowski, Paul M. “Can Ethics Be Technologized? Lessons from Challenger, Philosophy, and Rhetoric.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 38/3 (September 1995): 146-150.


Dragga, Sam. “Ethical Intercultural Communication.” TCQ 8/4 (Fall 1999): 365-382.


Dragga, Sam. “Is This Ethical? A Survey of Opinion on Principles and Practices of Document Design.: TC 43 (1996): 255-265.


Faber, Brenton. “Intuitive Ethics.”  TCQ  8/2 (Spring 1999): 189-202.


Katz, Steven B. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” College English 54/3 (1992): 255-275.


Lay, Mary M. “The Value of Gender Studies to Professional Communication Research.” JBTC 8/1 (January 1994): 58-91.


Lessl, Thomas M. “The Priestly Voice.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 75 (1989): 183-197.


Mann, Sandi. “Achieving Frontline Communication Excellence: The Potential Cost to Health.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 41/4 (December 1998): 254-269.


Markel, Mike. “An Ethical Imperative for Technical Communication.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 36/2 (June 1993): 81-86.


Markel, Mike. “Ethics and Technical Communication: A Case for Foundational Approaches.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 40/4 (1997): 284-289.


Moore, Mary. “Ethical Discourse and Foucault’s Conception of Ethics.” Human Studies 10 (1987): 81-95.


Orbell, Brenda. “The DoD Tailhook Report: Unanswered Questions.” JTWC 25/2 (1995): 201-213.


Sauer, Beverly. “Sense and Sensibility in Technical Communication: How Feminist Interpretation Strategies Can Save Lives in the Nation’s Mines.” JBTC 7 (1993): 63-83.


Stone, M. B. “In Search of Patient Agency in the Rhetoric of Diabetes Care.” TCQ 6/2 (Spring 1997): 201-217.


Sturges, David L. “Overcoming the Ethical Dilemma: Communication Decisions in the Ethic Ecosystem.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 35/1 (March 1992): 44-50.           


Sullivan, Dale L. “The Epideictic Rhetoric of Science.” JBTC 5/3 (July 1991): 229-245.


Waddell, Craig. “Defining Sustainable Development: A Case Study in Environmental Communication.” TCQ 4/2 (Spring 1995): 201-216.


Wicclair, Mark R. and David K. Farkas. “Ethical Reasoning in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication (2nd Qtr. 1984): 15-19.


Williams, C. “Intel’s Pentium Chip Crisis: An Ethical Analysis.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 40/1 (March 1997): 13-19.


Zerbe, Michael J. et al. “The Rhetoric of Fraud in Breast Cancer Trials: Manifestations in Medical Journals and the Mass Media—and Missed Opportunities.” JTWC 28/1 (1998): 39-61.