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    • CommentAuthorRon Maimon
    • CommentTimeAug 24th 2011
    There is a recent question,, which I find important and fascinating. This question was casually investigated by a physics professor who is not active on this site, and I heard a variant of this question from him directly, and did a small amount of work on it. He has not published on this question then or in the intervening years, and I had some ideas on this problem then and now which I think are interesting, but they are all an outgrowth of him asking me this question, when I very briefly worked under him.

    Perhaps this is not an appropriate question for meta, but I started to answer this question, but felt bad to mention ideas which were sparked by somebody else's unpublished idea. He did not communicate results to me, beyond the question itself and some obvious structural properties, but I found a few things, possibly well known. Is it considered unethical to answer this question, knowing the few things that I do about it, now that it has been asked publically? I am a little torn.

    I could ask him, but I think that the answer people give to questions like this is an automatic "no", regardless of the actual ethics. What are the ethics of personal communication? Is there a time limit, an expiration date, after which you may describe unpublished personal communication, or must you wait for the person to publish (or perish)?
    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeAug 24th 2011
    MO is not the same as an article. I ask permission to share personal communications in an actual publication. I would say the main downside of putiing somebody else's stuff on MO is if you thereby undercut their ability to publish.
    I'm a little bit concerned about the possibility that we may lose these ideas altogether (at least for a while) if we have to wait around for people to make up their minds and publish already...

    I don't understand what harm comes to the physics professor by you posting about it. Any benefit he gains by keeping the question secret has already been compromised by herrsimon. If anything, I would guess he benefits from your attributing the question to him. From your description, it doesn't sound like he asked you to be secretive about this question in the first place. Even if this professor were opposed to it, I can't muster an ethical argument against you sharing your ideas about an already-public question.

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011
    Ron, I suggest to ask him
    Of course, Gil is correct: the professor might say no as Ron suggest (then again maybe not!), and I think that Ron is free to follow or not follow the professor's wishes (depending on the specifics of the case and Ron's personal conscience, e.g. how many intervening years are we talking about?). But even if you go against that person's wishes, asking them first must be the polite and ethical thing to do.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011

    Thierry and/or Ron, I am a bit confused now. As I read it Ron's question is 'is it unethical?' and he expects a 'no', which would mean that the professor actually 'says yes' to the answering. But Thierry seems to read this differently than I.


    This was once suggested to me by Andreas Blass for a case where there was no real ethical issue but politeness dictated asking permission: formulate the question negatively, e.g. "would you be opposed to", so that lack of response constitutes tacit approval.

    [Edit: Changed the wording to reflect the fact that Andreas's suggestion was meant for a particular case, not necessarily meant as a general principle.]


    @quid: the professor may object, even if there are no ethical grounds for the objection. Thierry (and Gil, I think) suggest that even if there is no ethical obligation to ask the professor, it's still a polite thing to do. This sounds fine to me, especially if it means Ron will sleep easier. Then again, it sounds like community standards in Ron's field are quite different from my intuition, since I would be very surprised to get an "automatic 'no'" to this kind of question.

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011

    Anton, my intuition is the same as yours. And, therefore I was sure my reading, despite the double negation, was the intended one.

    Leaving the question of the expected answer and even whether to ask aside: in my opinion, as soon as one asks one should definitely follow the expressed wishes. To avoid problems with nonresponse, Fran├žois suggestion is something I will keep in mind.

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011

    I have the fear that Andreas Blass's suggestion (especially after being relayed by Francois and quid; remember the game 'Telephone'?) will be misused. Even in situations where ethics is not an issue, the polite and proper thing to do is act in a way such that the asker gets an acknowledgment that the question was received. After all, life can still be interesting even with clear and effective communication; it does not need to be spiced up with passive misunderstanding.

    Gerhard "It Does Mean More Effort" Paseman, 2011.08.26

    I got so annoyed at my wife for wearing red after asking me "should I wear red or green" and I answered green that now I either say nothing or answer "either one is fine" when she asks.

    And, before someone asks: no, I don't think my comment is off topic.

    @Bill: I think that's a very good (and a propos) point.

    @Bill, I think the correct answer is, "you will look beautiful, either way."

    And, before someone asks: yes, I do think my comment is off topic.