Private correspondence made public

An interesting discussion has arisen on Twitter regarding my post earlier today on an email conversation I had with a critic of a previous blog post.

At least one person has submitted that I should not have posted a private email conversation without seeking permission of the correspondent.

Did the writer deserve the courtesy of such a request? Or did the indication not to engage online grant me journalistic license to use the exchange. Or should I have taken his reluctance to engage online as a reason not to post the exchange?

Or was I just simply exhibiting bad taste in posting a conversation that one party thought would be private?

The email was not threatening or otherwise hate mail – it was, as one commenter stated, “a tactless complaint.” Does that matter?

Was I justified in posting the conversation as a discussion point following from some conversations I had at ScienceOnline and before? Should I have simply paraphrased the content of the email? Should I have not mentioned the writer by name (even though my promotion of his clinical trial was noted in the post he criticized.).

What say you?

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20 Responses to Private correspondence made public

  1. KateClancy says:

    The way the disclaimer thing was worded at the end implied that the important thing was that the email get into the hands of the appropriate individual and that that individual could do with it as s/he wished. Which is what you did. So personally I’m fine with it.

  2. Ed Yong says:

    Keith made an interesting point about norms changing. I suspect that many (most?) people would find the publishing of the email a bit weird. I’m cool with it. I just assume that anyone could/would publish what I write to them, and there’s certainly buckets of precedent for this in the blogosphere.

    Then you have to ask: is it a good thing if norms change so that emails, which some people consider to be private, are made public?

    And honestly, I think it is. Because some people have, for a long time, used the suppposedly private nature of emails to be complete arseholes without subjecting their behaviour to public scrutiny. I have no problem with making it more difficult for that to happen.

  3. Brian K says:

    Common courtesy dictates that you either ask or you don’t include the name of the person. WHO it is was not relevant to your point.

  4. My policy for my blog is: when someone sends me something via email without any prior agreement about how the contents of the email are to be used, then I’m free to do whatever I want. I don’t think that it’s reasonable for people to assert that you’re bound by some kind of legal or ethical contract that you can’t even see until after you’ve received the supposedly privileged info.

  5. Chris Porter says:

    The writer of the email owns copyright on the email. They may claim copyright infringement, I believe.

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    Well, as the person who first publicly stated that he was troubled by this breach of “common courtesy,” (I’m with you Brian K) I have to say that I’m surprised this is even treated as a legitimate question–at least by journalists.

    Ed, so you would really be okay if your private (often informal) email exchanges were made public? Shouldn’t there be a safe space where journalists can talk with sources, and vice versa?

  7. RogerTheGeek says:

    I am curious about any copyright infringement. An email isn’t something that I would describe as a creative work. I find that to be a stretch and probably not legally enforceable, but IANAL. Anyone can sue anyone about anything. Winning is the bigger issue.

    In the olden days, there were some unwritten rules or etiquette about sharing email content. Those days are over and good riddance. Any time you put anything on email, Twitter, public web sites, G+ posts, Facebook posts, etc. you should expect that the content is public or at least out of your control.

    An issue to consider is whether your outing “private” communications helps you and/or them. Would they shy away from communicating with you? Do you care? I don’t know how I would feel about it.

  8. Jacquelyn says:

    One thing to consider is that some of us spend more time thinking about these sorts of things than others. It had never occurred to me as a scientist that an e-mail I sent to a reporter might be posted publicly, just like it had never occurred to me that I could speak “off the record” to a journalist (though even since scio12 I have heard, via @NerdyChristie’s #NSFMessenger tweets, that there is “no such thing as off the record). We’re seeing some very different cultures butting up against one another, and I think it’s worth mentioning that not everyone realizes their rights (or lack thereof). Certainly, the author of the e-mail was under the impression that the text in his e-mail protected him. You obviously disagreed.

    Are you within your right to do it? I don’t feel qualified to comment on that. To me, the more important question is: should you? Is the harm done greater than the benefit? If your purpose is to expose fraud, or threat of violence, or some similarly dastardly intention, then I salute you. But to publicly call someone out for not requesting a correction as tactfully as you would have liked seems to me to be counterproductive to our goals of increasing communication and trust between scientists and journalists. As a scientist, I see that post and I think, “wow, does this mean that if I take private issue with someone’s coverage of their post, they’ll call me out publicly?” I find it a bit intimidating, to be honest.

    We could all do with better training and understanding of the professional cultures of our colleagues in other fields. I guess, personally, it makes me sad that this has turned into a dividing exercise, rather than a uniting one.

  9. David Kroll says:

    Jacquelyn, thank you for your very thoughtful comment. You raise an important point here that I’d like to make clear:

    But to publicly call someone out for not requesting a correction as tactfully as you would have liked seems to me to be counterproductive to our goals of increasing communication and trust between scientists and journalists.

    I did not post the exchange simply because the request for correction was not in an agreeable tone. Instead, I posted because my request for information on precisely what I had written incorrectly (a very polite one, I might add) was met with a statement that the critic couldn’t be bothered.

    In fact, after all these pixels have been spilled, I have yet to know how, “the story as written is so rife with mythology and gross misstatements that to the trained eye it comes across as simply silly.”

  10. DrugMonkey says:

    Publishing an email like that is slightly assy behavior. Particularly with all his contact details.


    dude’s being an ass about your post so, you know. what goes around and all….

  11. Mary says:

    I’m with Jacquelyn here:

    It had never occurred to me as a scientist that an e-mail I sent to a reporter might be posted publicly…

    Disclaimer: in the past I sent Keith Kloor a letter about an item, a nice letter, possibly embarassingly fan-girlish if I looked at it again (can’t remember the details now). But I’d probably cringe if it was published.

    Whether he has the right to, probably. Would I send any more ever again? Probably not. To anyone whose work I liked.

  12. Jacquelyn says:

    Thank you for the clarification. You still haven’t answered my first question (on your previous post), though. Why not engage over the phone? It seems to me, reading the exchange, that you closed the first door. Again, I’m speaking having never been in your position, but I do know that engaging in blog comments can be a pretty darned time-consuming exercise (I’m coming back to you dissertation, I promise!). :)

  13. In general, I wouldn’t publish an email from anyone and naming them without at least first letting them know. But…as David pointed out, had he simply published the content and context, the person would be identified, anyway, and the caveat with the email included David as the recipient in its terms of use. So…is the question here, Is it *always* OK to publicize emails from anyone, anywhere, or is it, Does this get consideration on a case-by-case basis?

    This case is a particular one, I’d argue, because the person made an accusation that he then didn’t follow up, and it was about scientific accuracy in what David had published. Had this person sent that letter to, say, a newspaper, would we expect the paper not to reveal its contents in addressing it? This gets into a consideration of the differences and similarities between blogging science/science online vs science journalism emerging via an entity like a newspaper or magazine. Do we treat emails as letters? Do we treat emails/letters as fair game for open discussion? I know from experience that I’ve sent letters to a newspaper that were clearly *not* editorial letters, but they published them anyway as editorials, which surprised me. That particular paper has changed its process now to obtain writer approval, but even that’s been upended periodically.

    One thing useful from this, I think, is that were I still a scientist, based on this exchange, I’d consider whether or not I’d take it upon myself to act behind the scenes like a high-handed jerk to someone who’d written something relevant to me or perhaps instead approach the situation with more of an attitude of, We’re here for the sake of science, so let’s make sure the science is right. The person who sent this email didn’t have that attitude, obviously. So why bother sending the email at all? Is publishing the letter a “punishment” for that behavior, and if so, is it justified? For scientists who find that David had done so a daunting or worrisome development, does the letter writer’s attitude at all influence in some other way how you might respond to something you find in error in an article?

    At a higher level, the real consideration here on the part of journalist or scientist is, simply, being considerate.

  14. Tom Levenson says:

    I have two reactions to this: One — emails in the context of public communication are public unless the correspondent specifically asks for privacy, (In the context of my work, which involves a lot of HR stuff and students and so on, there is a lot of confidential stuff that is clearly not for wider distribution. But I’d offer it as good, if Polonius’ advice, never to put anything in an email on any subject that you could not stand to hear in open court, or see above the fold in Variety.)

    Two: Despite that, I don’t use the names of emailers even in what are clearly public settings like this one, without prior permission. I want folks to write to me about anything; I don’t want to chill that kind of communication.

    Is that an ethical principle? I don’t know — or rather I think you could make an argument about it either way. But it’s a practical one for me.

  15. Mu says:

    The copyright question is pretty much dead, he did not assert copyright (which would have been simple with a take-down notice) but claimed privilege or confidentiality. The later would require a prior agreement by both sides, and the first has clear legal limits. I can’t see him winning either argument in court. At that point the message is public record and freely quotable anyway.
    Also, copyright only protects against direct quotation, not a blog post sumarizing his statements. As for “he should have kept he email confidential”, if you tell a blogger that he’s full of [excrement] but can’t be bothered to wipe for him, I don’t think you should be surprised about the dirty laundry being aired.

  16. David Kroll says:

    Hey Drug, I appreciate the balanced argument. Just to be clear, I only posted a link to the investigator’s name and title and link to the form, just as I had done in the original post that drew his email. Either post would ultimately get you to his contact info with one or two clicks.

    Part of my reason for including the link in my original post was exactly because I wanted to raise awareness among health care professionals that a mechanism exists for patients poisoned with amatoxins to get access to the European IV silibinin product.

  17. David Kroll says:

    Tom, thank you for your detailed feedback. Regardless of how I chose to approach this issue, you point out an important point that, “I want folks to write to me about anything; I don’t want to chill that kind of communication.” This is indeed a most practical concern.

  18. Maia Szalavitz says:

    I agree with Tom; I want people to write to me (usually 😉 and I wouldn’t want people to publicize an email I’d dashed off without my permission. We all have our bad days and it’s very easy to hit “send” and then regret it. I know we should treat email as if it’s public, but I also think we should treat each other with kindness and respect, as much as possible. That’s incredibly hard to do when the other person is being a jerk and no one (not even David, one of the most respectful and compassionate writers I know!! 😉 can manage perfect compassion, of course.

  19. Jessica Wapner says:

    I think maybe part of the problem is that because the person who wrote you wasn’t so forthcoming or polite, your publishing his e-mail in your post has a whiff of “take that!” even though that was not at all your motive. I think that misunderstanding could end up having more repercussions than the publishing of the e-mail itself.

    I wasn’t taken aback by your post at all, but I think if I’d written the e-mail to you, I would have been. After reading your original post, I did have mild “what a jerk!” feelings (about the e-mailer, not you!) which makes me wonder if maybe reproducing the e-mails wasn’t the best way to accomplish what you’d set out to. But that doesn’t mean that including the e-mail was wrong, it’s only about did it fulfill your intention.

    A disclaimer at the end of an e-mail about not reprinting, distributing, contents are intended for recipient only … that sort of thing … would probably have done the trick, no?

  20. Hi, David.
    First, it seems to me that this critic did not made a good and efective contact with you, not only because the tactless way he addressed his complaint, but also for not pointing out what errors or misunderstandings he detected. If a person has so little time to suggest a correction on a story, I think that is logical to expect that this person go and send right away the points to make it right. In my daily work, sometimes there are corrections to make. When that happens, I can hear and annotate those points, and then ask the person to send more details by mail, if the correction is specially extense or complicated to understand by phone.

    Second, while I understand that e-mails are a good medium to get textual quotes from a distance and get a conversation, besides other functions, I never got through a situation like this when approaching a story. Maybe it is because I’m just starting to become a science journalist ;).

    Personally, in my daily routine I won’t put the e-mail on a post about the bad conversation, basically because I see those misunderstandings as an opportunity to create confidence, to revert a situation. But this (reverting a bad situation) takes two: in your case, you kept the conversation private until that response, which I think was quite unpolite. I prefer the rule, in those cases of ‘bad connexion’, to not publish unless it can make clear a wide misunderstanding. I’m not sure if I would not act more or less like you, because when I get aware that there is something wrong in my text, then it gets personal, and I am the first and the most interested to get it right. He told you there were errors and then leaned back, and left you with the bomb.

    And for the scientists, I wonder that maybe this “extreme caution” in communicating imprecisions and engaging in constructive debates is not somehow the real danger, and a anacronic fear.