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Publications > Dateline Houston > April 2003 > Feature Article

Volume 42, Issue 8

April 2003

Do Ethics Influence Your Documentation Deliverables?

by Jeff Staples, Information Developer, Kitba Consulting Services, L.P.

Are ethics in technical communication different from ethics in any other field? I would think that you either have ethics or you don't. Or perhaps you have ethics but your ethics change or are influenced by the situation or project.

In his book Ethics in Technical Communication, Paul Dombrowski identifies that one's ethics can be absolute (definite, unchanging, and inflexible) or relative (changing in relation to the situation) (Dombrowski, 11).

Before reading Dombrowski's book, when I thought of ethics-related situations, I thought of recent incidents in the workplace. These incidents involved management-related conflicts, such as managers not standing behind the word of their subordinates. However, I should have thought differently, based on another recent incident that reflects more on ethics in relation to the tech comm field.

In speaking with my doc group editor, she mentioned that some writers "were pulling information off the web and dropping the information directly into their documents, without referencing their source." When questioned, the writers responded, "Isn't the information on the Web in the public domain?" This particular editor was very knowledgeable in copyright issues. She has worked to educate the writers on do's and don'ts when using text resources, whether from the web or print, and has seen a decrease in practices of this type.

Dombrowski relates ethics with technical communication to the information provided in the documentation and how the information conveys the technology presented. Maybe I hadn't thought about my ethical role in delivering technical communication because I had envisioned my role as a technical communicator in more of the historical sense.

As Dombrowski describes, until recent years technical communication was viewed "as the articulation and dissemination of information about technology—the technology and information being assumed given" (Dombrowski, 2). Based on this definition, the ethics responsibility is more with the person providing the technical content rather than the person creating the documentation.

"Ethics is always involved in technical communication, though only in the last twenty or so years has it become an important topic in technical communication publications" (Dombrowski, ix). In recent years, technical communication has become more than just taking information and making it presentable. If given (or seizing) the opportunity, technical communicators can bring their expertise to the development process and, if included at the onset of development, can help deliver a more customer-focused product.

The technical communicator has become an information developer—researching and creating the content of the documentation deliverables that will accompany the product or service. Thus, if the technical communicator is creating information content rather than just reproducing the information given, the technical communicator also carries the ethical responsibility of the technical content delivered.

Have you faced ethical dilemmas while producing technical communication deliverables? If so, I would like to hear from you at Currently taking a graduate class in ethics, I am interested in hearing about ethical incidents that other technical communicators have faced. Based on the responses I receive, I hope to have a future newsletter article on various ethical dilemmas faced by technical communicators.


Dombrowski, Paul M. Ethics in Technical Communication. Allyn & Bacon, 1999.


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