Ethics in an age of data breaches

This post began as a comment on a blog post, The Ethics of Research on Leaked Data: Ashley Madison, by Neurosceptic on their Discover Magazine’s blog, 14 July 2018.

I’ve expanded it here to provide context and background.


Photo by Oumaima Ben Chebtit | unsplash.com

Photo by Oumaima Ben Chebtit | unsplash.com

In August 2015, a hacking group released data from AshleyMadison.com, a website designed to attract funds from men seeking an extramarital affair.

Before the year was out, academics were drawing on the Ashley Madison breach data.

I’ve found five journal articles or scholarly papers that draw on the data.

  • Grieser, William, Rachel Li, and Andrei Simonov. ‘Integrity, Creativity, and Corporate Culture’. SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 19 April 2017. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2741049.

Grieser, Li and Simonov (all based in the USA) used email domain names to compare the proportion of staff in the Ashley Madison breach data with occurrences of corporate fraud.

  • Griffin, John M., Samuel Kruger, and Gonzalo Maturana. ‘Do Personal Ethics Influence Corporate Ethics?’ SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 26 July 2017. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2745062.

Griffin, Kruger and Maturana (all based in the USA) identified Chief Executive Officers and Chief Financial Officers in the Ashley Madison breach data and compared that data with corporate infraction data.

  • Chohaney, Michael L., and Kimberly A. Panozzo. ‘Infidelity and the Internet: The Geography of Ashley Madison Usership in the United States’. Geographical Review 108, no. 1 (1 January 2018): 69–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/gere.12225.

Chohaney and Panozzo (based in the USA) grouped Ashley Madison breach data by US Metropolitan Statistical Area (roughly analogous to large cities) and related this to patterns of affluence and other aspects of those areas. Read more of this post

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The effect of impact

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 20 September 2018 under the title “Don’t fear the bogeyman”. It is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


“I … have made impactful contributions to industry and practice…”

As a research whisperer, I spend my life helping people to refine their grant applications. An important part of that is wielding the ‘big red pen of clarity’, and editing their material to help express their ideas more clearly.

You can imagine my reaction when I read ‘impactful’ in a grant application recently. I was appalled. In the Australian vernacular, I nearly choked on my Weeties. This horror appeared in an otherwise excellent application, written by an otherwise excellent applicant. We had words…

At about the same time, Tim Sherratt tweeted:

André Brett replied,

Read more of this post

Saving space

References, listed without any gaps between them.

My least favourite way to save space – turn the reference list into a solid block of text.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had all the space that you needed to explain your research carefully and completely to the funding agency?

Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was space for nuance and complexity?

Wouldn’t it be terrific if your application fitted within the stupid page limit and you didn’t have to delete another half a page…it’s already midnight and you just want to go to bed.

Much as I feel for your sleep-deprived editing self, it wouldn’t actually be very pretty at all. I’ve seen people provide thirty pages when they were asked for two. I’ve had researchers complain that they can’t attach their 50-page CV to an application. I know what it is like to have 130 pages of application to review and comment on, with just a couple of hours to do it. I know that there is never enough space to write what you want, in the way that you want.

I also know that there is never enough time to read what is submitted, with the attention that it deserves. Read more of this post

Advice on fellowships

A friend of mine is applying for a Fellowship and sent through a draft of her application. This article is based on my advice to her. It is written for the Churchill Fellowships in the UK, but it applies to most fellowships around the world.


Young Winston, looking dashing.

Winston Churchill as a new Member of Parliament in 1901, via Wikimedia Commons

Fellowship applications are hard. They force you to stand alone. You are often applying early in your career, when you feel like you don’t have much to skite about. The temptation to puff yourself up is overwhelming – then you read back on it and it makes you want to vomit, just a bit.

On the other hand, Fellowships allow you to stand out. This is your moment to shine. Your moment in the spotlight.

I guess it all depends on where you stand.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust have been giving out fellowships for over 50 years – they have a very clear idea of who they want to fund. So, I’m going to read their guidelines first, and mine them for advice.

Travel to learn – return to inspire…

We fund UK citizens to travel overseas, exploring new ideas, and return with global insights to inspire communities and professions.

These are the Churchill Fellowships – and they’re open to all.

This is the best thumbnail description of a funding agency that I’ve ever read. These should be your watchwords when you are composing your application. Write for this audience. Read more of this post

Looking backwards

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes have changed, and will continue to change. 


Philosophical Transactions: giving some account of the present understanding, studies and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world. Volume 1, for years 1665 and 1666.

Frontispiece of Philosophical Transactions, by Henry Oldenburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

More and more research material is either being produced as digital objects or are being digitised. I can see the first copy of Philosophical Transactions from my desk. Open licensing means that more and more of this material can be shared.

However, when it comes to the administration of this research, it is a different matter.

I tried to look up a grant that the Australian Research Council (ARC) gave out in 1999 (20 years ago). I just wanted the bare minimum – title, participants and amount awarded (bonus points for years funded). It wasn’t on the ARC’s website. They are best of breed, but their database only covers grants awarded from 2001 onwards. I finally found it because one of the people involved had published their CV online, and had listed the details of the grant.

That is because this grant belonged to the Age of Paper. Now, we live in a digital age.

We have forgotten (or were born too young to know) that we used to submit grant applications on paper. Hands up all those people who remember physically counting the pages of a grant application before you made ten copies of it and then physically posted it (or, deadlines and academics being what they are, couriered it) to the funding agency.

We live in the age of The Great Digitising: that period after digitising everything became possible, but before everything was actually digitised. So, there are lacunae, or blank spots, like the ARC’s database of grants, which covers most but not all of what they have funded. The weird thing about the blank spots is that they are mostly in the recent past. Really early stuff, like Philosophical Transactions, have been digitised. Journals and source documents in the last 50 years? Not so much (generally because of copyright issues). Grant applications that are 20 years old? Not at all!

I was looking for that grant application because one of my academics (who wasn’t part of the original grant) wanted to build on that work. They will be applying with the same industry partner, to the scheme that is the successor to the funding scheme that funded the work 20 years ago. Read more of this post

Openness and security

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes may change in the future.  


This message and any attachment are intended solely for the addressee and may contain confidential information. If you have received this message in error, please contact the sender and delete the email and attachment.

Page 1 of a US Department of Defence document with heavy redactions.

Redacted document, via Wikimedia Commons

This statement is standard boilerplate at a lot of universities (and other organisations). It is designed to demonstrate due diligence in reducing risk, I think.

For me, this statement encapsulates the disjunction between where our researchers are going, and where the university administration stands. Research is becoming more and more open. Open journals, open data, open everything.

As administrators, we remain steadfastly closed. Grant applications are confidential. Research contracts are confidential. Even our emails are confidential. There are good reasons for this confidentiality, in some instances. A lot of the time, though, confidentiality in administration is business-as-usual atrophy. An all-pervasive attitude that we don’t even think about anymore.

This blog is a good example of that. For the last seven years, we’ve published an article every week (almost) about doing research in academia. All the articles are available for everybody to read. When we first proposed this idea, our manager was quite suspicious. Why would we want to give away the university’s “secret sauce”? Wouldn’t that make us less competitive? Actually, when it comes to constructing a good budget, or a Gantt chart, or most anything else about what we do, there is no secret sauce. It is all standard stuff. But thinking about our professional practice every week, and publishing it openly for others, has been enormously beneficial. Read more of this post

When grants were handwritten

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role.

I couldn’t actually be in Edinburgh, so my main contributions was a personal reflection on the last 30 years of research administration, and how the technology has changed. This is an expanded version of that talk.


1987: Thirty years ago

A grant application form from 1987, for the Australian Research Grants Scheme

1987: note the ‘Office use only’ boxes, where we could hand write the file number.

Thirty years ago, I began my career in research administration working for one of Australia’s national funding agencies, the Australian Research Grants Committee. I spent a lot of time on the telephone, talking to universities because, at that time, there was no effective email between government departments and the universities. I also spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the photocopier, as everything was delivered on paper.

Here is an exercise for you: imagine all the major grant applications that you submitted this year, printed out eight times each (I think we asked for eight copies of each application). Then think about the logistics involved in getting them physically transported to the funding agency on time. Today? We just push a button.

The year that I worked there was the last year of the Australian Research Grants Committee. In the next year, Don Aitken transformed it into the funding organisation that Australian researchers know today, the Australian Research Council. It was part of wider democratisation of the Australian university systemRead more of this post