Ethical Question:

Ok, here’s the scenario. I was trying to track down an electronic copy of an article (Cross-National Epidemiology of Major Depression and Bipolar Disorder, if you must know) cited in one of my favorite anarchist publications.

Now, I knew the article had originally been published in JAMA, but I really didn’t feel up to driving 40 miles to the university and sifting through the stacks. So, I e-mailed the head researcher and asked if the article had been reprinted online.

She replied in the negative, but CC’d the group admin who promptly Fed-Exd a copy of the article.

No big deal, right? Well, here’s my dilemma, when the admin asked for my address, she referred to me as Dr. TastyCorn. As smart as I claim to be, I do not currently hold a doctorate in any field. I feel she might have been more willing to foot the Fed-Ex expense for a peer than for just some average Joe.

I could have corrected her, but I knew that might diminish my chances of being able to read the article.

So, should I have corrected her, even if it meant not getting the article?

You could have, but you were not under any obligation to.

You did not represent yourself as a doctor. You simply did not correct her mistake in assuming that you are one. Furthermore, she didn’t explicitly state “Since you’re a doctor, I’m going to send you one for free…,” did she?

I’d say you’re in the clear.

Zev Steinhardt

I don’t think so. You didn’t misrepresent yourself to the author, and it was her decision to have the article sent. The admin was just playing it safe.

Look, the only way you’re going to ever make up for this extremely dubious lack of ethics is to go out and get a PhD.

I want a proposed thesis and list of peer review candidates on my desk tomorrow morning!

No, no, Zenster, anything people send you in the mail is yours free. No obligations!

Ok, follow up question.

If I had corrected her, do you think I would have the article in my hands right now? (the first e-mail was yesterday about noon)

Nope, it would probably been sent snail-mail. But think about it this way, she worked hard on this and wants it to be read. And if she thinks you’re a Doc then she can tell everyone, “I’ve had doctors from all over the world ask for copies of my work, some as far away as East Podunk and San Diego.” Works both ways. Plus she probably assumed that no one in their right mind would want to read this, except for peers. Just a thought…

You mean if you just said, “Sorry, it’s Mr/Ms Tastycorn?”

Sure. Why not? In the first place, they probably really don’t care, and in the second place, you could have a Masters in, say, public health, be a grad student, person from the press, or any number of other people legitimately interested in the subject.

Believe me, those reprints aren’t flying off her shelves, in all likelihood.

i have Dr. angelabaca printed on my letterhead.


As someone who works in the research field, I’ll add that often if you are unsure of the title of the person that you’re writing to, and have no way of confirming it quickly/easily/without embarrassing yourself, the standard procedure seems to be to just address them as “Dr.” It tends to cause the least amount of offense - you’ll amuse some student or secretary somewhere, and no doctor will get peeved over the lack of title.

So it’s possible that you got a bonus FedEx out of the process, but not necessarily the case. I’ll add that for article requests that I had mailed out, I usually sent them via postal mail regardless of the title of the person requesting them, so maybe you just got someone who was being super helpful.