12 December 2016

Should the NLP and ML Communities have a Code of Ethics?

At ACL this past summer, Dirk Hovy and Shannon Spruit presented a very nice opinion paper on Ethics in NLP. There's also been a great surge of interest in FAT-everything (FAT = Fairness, Accountability and Transparency), typified by FATML, but there are others. And yet, despite this recent interest in ethics-related topics, none of the major organizations that I'm involved in have a Code of Ethics, namely: the ACL, the NIPS foundation nor the IMLS. After Dirk's presentation, he, I, Meg Mitchell and Michael Strube and some others spent a while discussing ethics in NLP (a different subset, including Dirk, Shannon, Meg, Hanna Wallach, Michael and Emily Bender) went on to form a workshop that'll take place at EACL) and the possibility of a code of ethics (Meg also brought this up at the ACL business meeting) which eventually gave rise to this post.

(Note: the NIPS foundation has a "Code of Conduct" that I hadn't seen before that covers similar ground to the (NA)ACL Anti-Harassment Policy; what I'm talking about here is different.)

A natural question is whether this is unusual among professional organizations. The answer is most definitely yes, it's very unusual. The Association for Computing Machinery, the British Computer Society, the IEEE, the Linguistic Society of America and the Chartered Institute of Linguistics all have codes of ethics (or codes of conduct). In most cases, agreeing to the code of ethics is a prerequisite to membership in these communities.

There is a nice set of UMD EE slides on Ethics in Engineering that describes why one might want a code of Ethics:

  1. Provides a framework for ethical judgments within a profession
  2. Expresses the commitment to shared minimum standards for acceptable behavior
  3. Provides support and guidance for those seeking to act ethically
  4. Formal basis for investigating unethical conduct, as such, may serve both as a deterrence to and discipline for unethical behavior
Personally, I've never been a member of any of these societies that have codes of ethics. Each organization has a different set of codes, largely because they need to address issues specific to their field of expertise. For instance, linguists often do field work, and in doing so often interact with indigenous populations.

Below, I have reproduced the IEEE code as a representative sample (emphasis mine) because it is relatively brief. The ACM code and BCS code are slightly different, and go into more details. The LSA code and CIL code are related but cover slightly different topics. By being a member of the IEEE, one agrees:
  1. to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;
  2. to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist;
  3. to be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data;  
  4. to reject bribery in all its forms;  
  5. to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences;  
  6. to maintain and improve our technical competence and to undertake technological tasks for others only if qualified by training or experience, or after full disclosure of pertinent limitations;  
  7. to seek, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, and to credit properly the contributions of others;  
  8. to treat fairly all persons and to not engage in acts of discrimination based on race, religion, gender, disability, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression;
  9. to avoid injuring others, their property, reputation, or employment by false or malicious action;  
  10. to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics.
The pieces I've highlighted are things that I think are especially important to think about, and places where I think we, as a community, might need to work harder.

After this past ACL, I spent some time combing through the Codes of Ethics mentioned before and tried to synthesize a list that would make sense for the ACL, IMLS or NIPS. This is in very "drafty" form, but hopefully the content makes sense. Also to be 100% clear, all of this is basically copy and paste with minor edits from one or more of the Codes linked above; nothing here is original.

  1. Responsibility to the Public
    1. Make research available to general public
    2. Be honest and realistic in stating claims; ensure empirical bases and limitations are communicated appropriately
    3. Only accept work and make statements on topics which you believe have competence to do
    4. Contribute to society and human well-being, and minimize negative consequences of computing systems
    5. Make reasonable effort to prevent misinterpretation of results
    6. Make decisions consistent with safety, health & welfare of public
    7. Improve understanding of technology, its application and its potential consequences (positive and negative)
  2. Responsibility in Research
    1. Protect the personal identification of research subjects, and abide by informed consent
    2. Conduct research honestly, avoiding plagiarism and fabrication of results
    3. Cite prior work as appropriate
    4. Preserve original data and documentation, and make available
    5. Follow through on promises made in grant proposals and acknowledge support of sponsors
    6. Avoid real or perceived COIs, disclose when they exist; reject bribery
    7. Honor property rights, including copyrights and patents
    8. Seek, accept and offer honest criticism of technical work; correct errors; provide appropriate professional review
  3. Responsibility to Students, Colleagues, and other Researchers
    1. Recognize and property attribute contributions of students; promote student contributions to research
    2. No discrimination based on gender identity, gender expression, disability, marital status, race/ethnicity, class, politics, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, etc. (should this go elsewhere?)
    3. Teach students ethical responsibilities
    4. Avoid injuring others, their property, reputation or employment by false or malicious action
    5. Respect the privacy of others and honor confidentiality
    6. Honor contracts, agreements and assigned responsibilities
  4. Compliance with the code
    1. Uphold and promote the principles of this code
    2. Treat violations of this code as inconsistent with membership in this organization

I'd love to see (and help, if wanted) ACL, IMLS and NIPS foundation work on constructing a code of ethics. Our fields are more and more dealing with problems that have real impact on society, and I would like to see us, as a community, come together and express our shared standards.


Hanna said...

Email me. I brought this up at the NIPS board meeting and we're looking to move forward with this.

MMes said...

Apparently, there is a workshop in EACL17 (http://www.ethicsinnlp.org/) in this regard.

M. Mitchell said...

I brought this up at the ACL board meeting (you know, you were sitting next to me), but no one seemed interested. So I followed up with an ethicsinnlp workshop (http://www.ethicsinnlp.org).

Anonymous said...

Hi Hal

I do not see what is ACL or IMLS specific in this thread. FYI, the EU has published a code of ethics that applies across the board. See:
All EU projects have to include a specific section for discussing possible ethical issues related to the project.



Ujawal Singh said...
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Nikita said...

I believe that Data Science Code of Conduct is highly relevant here: http://www.datascienceassn.org/code-of-conduct.html

Evans said...

That is a very good peace especially for us in Africa where so many professions are done through extension eg. Translation and Interpretation but of recent they introduced a professional body and this info will come in hardy. thank you