P.Mean: Can I use you as a teaching example (created 2009-04-20)

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I frequently ask people for permission to talk about the projects I am helping them with, as they make great teaching examples. Some people say no, and that's fine. I do offer a discount for paying clients if you let me talk about this work on my web pages. One person raised an important issue when I asked. That person asked me to keep details about his/her organization anonymous if I was illustrating any boneheaded mistakes.

All of my webpages are reasonably anonymous, though you and some of your closest colleagues might recognize yourselves. If I do write anything that makes you uncomfortable, please let me know and I'll take down the webpage immediately.

I do have a series of webpages with titles like "lessons learned the hard way" where I talk about boneheaded mistakes that I made and then recognized later. I can't talk about the boneheaded mistakes that I never recognized of course.

I never describe other people in insulting terms though, even anonymously. Here's an example of how I might highlight an issue where someone took a less than optimal approach.


My webpages are intended to be teaching examples, and you can't teach well if you come across as critical.

Some people also raise an objection: if I publish the information on this website, that will prevent us from publishing it later in a peer-reviewed journal. I think this is a non-issue, because the types of things I publish on the web are so much different than what would appear in a peer-reviewed journal that they would not infringe on the copyright. But I respect the different perspective that others might have and will keep the teaching example off my site if you are worried about this.

Another objection that I've heard raised is that if I talk about an interesting idea on my website, someone may "steal" the idea. I also think this is a non-issue. I want people to use my ideas and get publications out of it. I'd like an acknowledgement, of course, and would be mildly irritated if I did not receive such recognition. But the more people doing work in an area I find interesting, the better off I (and hopefully the research community) would be. Again, if you have a concern about intellectual theft, I respect your viewpoint and will keep the teaching example off my site.

Actually, it's funny in a sad way, but the only material that I am aware of that was re-used without attribution is a joke I wrote "How many members of an IRB does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" The original joke is at my old website, and I recycled it in the December 2008 issue of my monthly newsletter. There were several individuals who used this joke without giving me any credit, including the newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom. I guess academic freedom means freedom to steal other people's work (as I said above, I'm mildly irritated). In contrast, K.H. Grobman did give me credit for this joke.

If my jokes are the only thing on the web worth stealing, then I've wasted a lot of my time writing these pages.

Update: the links to the "thieves" who took my joke without attribution are no longer active. Good!

By the way, you might comment that recycling old jokes is a type of intellectual theft known as self-plagiarism. I disagree. Self-plagiarism is not intellectual theft. It is simply relying on the only source you can really trust.

I do use some material without permission: questions that someone places on a public forum like an internet discussion group or questions that I get by email. This is a gray area, but most people are so grateful to get some free advice from me that they don't care if I use the material on my webpages as well. But if I put on my webpages that you don't want me to use, just let me know. I've got more than enough material that taking your question off the webpages won't hurt anything and I would never want to alienate a potential future customer.

One last issue is patient confidentiality. If I use actual data on my webpages, it is thoroughly scrubbed of any personal identifiers. Since it is a teaching example, I sometimes take the time to jitter the data a bit or shuffle labels so as to further insure against the release of personal identifiers.

One last quote about using real material as teaching examples. "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning." Catherine Aird, as quoted at http://www.quotesdaddy.com/author/Catherine+Aird.

I suppose some of my webpages show me as a good example and some show me as a horrible warning.