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Speaking of Ethics: Listerv Nettiquette

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”
(Albert Camus)

Ed Etzel & Jack Watson

Some time ago we submitted an article to an unnamed journal that incorporated the above quote from Camus in part of the title. We thought it was real catchy and linked well with the overall theme of the research we were reporting - ethics (Perhaps one of you actually read it?). This title appeared too controversial for our reviewers. We were encouraged to change the title. Since all feedback is friendly, the NLP folks say, and we wanted the piece in print, we shifted title gears and toned it down.

Of late, there has been some “encouragement” to tone things down at bit in cyberspace. Clearly, the Internet has considerable potential and professional value to all of us (e.g., an open forum to share information, discuss pressing issues and problems we face in our work, collaborate on projects, etc.). (See Watson & Etzel, 2000). However, assuming the reader has been observing or even carefully contributing to the historical and recent series of, shall we say, situations and commentaries involving the use of our sport psychology listservs, you may wonder how strange can this forum get? What has happened? Are we really out of control? Are we scaring off individuals with this behavior that may have desired to enter our profession? Are these listserves positively benefiting our profession? Do unethical beasts roam our corner of the Internet?

What guidance does our current AASP Ethics Code offer members when it comes to communicating with others in cyberspace? Well, unfortunately, not that much. While an addendum to our Ethics Code on Internet use in our field has been crafted and discussed for a few years, it has not been adopted. Nevertheless, embedded in the current Code’s Introduction seems to be the core of aspirational, ethical listserv behavior – personal responsibility.

“Our responsibilities…result from the society’s trust that the profession will regulate itself to do no harm, and to govern itself to ensure the dignity and welfare of individuals we serve and the public…This [ethics] code guides professionals to act responsibly as they employ the privileges granted by society. A profession’s inability to regulate itself violates the public’s trust and undermines the profession’s potential to be of service to society.

Additional information can also be drawn from others sections of the ethical guidelines. Within Principle D: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity, it states among other things that “AASP members accord appropriate respect to the fundamental rights, dignity, and worth of all people. They respect the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, self-determination, and autonomy, mindful that legal and other obligations may lead to inconsistency and conflict with the exercise of these rights.” Furthermore, within Principle E: Concern for Others\' Welfare, it states that “AASP members seek to contribute to the welfare of those with whom they interact professionally. When conflicts occur among AASP members’ obligations or concerns, they attempt to resolve those conflicts and to perform those roles in a responsible fashion that avoids or minimizes harm.”

The bottom line is that when we become AASP members we sign on to act responsibly. We all also agree to self regulate our professional behavior so we protect the dignity of others and avoid harming others and ourselves. AASP members do so consistently to foster and preserve the public’s trust in our profession. In a sense, we are the public too, by the way…

Whatever your read and reaction to listsev activity has been, hopefully, a take home lesson is that we all need to be very, very careful about what we say. It is everyone’s professional responsibility. This is beyond “Oops!” transmissions of personal messages, perhaps funny jokes and favorite recipes that end up on the monitors of all our members and anybody else who monitors these listservs. Current technology makes all of our interactions in these forums public information, making it just as if not more important to act professionally in these areas than ever before. Our profession is growing, and inappropriate behavior in public areas not only hurts the person who behaved inappropriately, but everyone in the field as well.

Beyond this high ethical road, is the more rocky legal path. Nathalie Gilfoyle, APA General Counsel wrote a brief but very wise piece entitled “Legal risks of listervs” (WVPA, 2003). To paraphrase one part of her article, she warned psychologists about having “debate spill over into attacks” on others who have different ideas than our own. Statements that are not true and that threaten or harm another’s professional reputation are potentially libelous. She encouraged professionals to restrict criticism of others to factual information and to avoid opinions about the “character, competence or motives of others” so as to “minimize legal risk.” At the very least, such behavior is irresponsible. 

The Daily Athenaeum, student newspaper at West Virginia University, has at the top of each page 1 the quote from (???) that says: “Little good is accomplished without controversy and no civic evil is ever defeated without publicity.” Beyond the bad publicity, torn relationships and scaring off of future professionals in our field, we believe that some good may have and will come from past and recent listserv drama. It is up to each of us to very, very carefully think before we hit “Send.” If not, you may turn into an unethical listbeast. Camus may then roll over in his grave…


Watson II, J.C., & Etzel, E.F. (2000, Fall). Considering ethics: Using the Internet in sport psychology. AAASP Newsletter, 15(3). 13-16.  

Gilfoyle, N (2003).