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Public statements and representation by members of University staff and students

POLICY NO: C-5.0

DATE OF APPROVAL: 28 October 1991, (C-10/91-32)

AMENDMENTS: Council 2011/7/10

REFERENCE AUTHORITY: Vice Chancellor

CROSS REFERENCES:  
Code of Ethical Conduct
Code of Conduct for Students
UniSA Code of Practice: Marketing the University
Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2007)


Preamble and Scope

The university encourages its staff and students to participate in public discussion in areas of their academic and professional expertise in order to contribute to a more informed society.

Academic freedom of expression also has associated responsibilities and this policy aims to clarify these rights and responsibilities for staff commenting in the public domain, and in particular with reference to their involvement in the media.

This policy applies to all UniSA staff, including professional and academic, part-time, full-time, and casual staff, as well as holders of honorary and adjunct titles.

Clauses 5 to 9 also apply to UniSA students who are conducting research.

If in doubt whether a proposed statement falls within the scope of this policy, staff members should discuss the matter with the relevant member of Senior Management Group.

Definitions

‘Established expertise’ means that:


‘Media’ includes all means of publicly broadcasting information, including television, radio, printed news and magazine publications and online/web media including blogs and other social media formats.

‘Peer review’ means impartial and independent assessment of expertise by others working in the same or a related field (in the case of research, Section 6 of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research would apply).

Policy

University statements


1. Official statements in the name of the university must be authorised by the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor or other people as nominated by the Vice Chancellor.


Statements made as private citizens


2. All staff members have the right to express their views publicly on any matter of public interest as private citizens. Subject to clause 3, such statements should not include the name or address of the university (or any campus name or address) or the member’s university position title.


Public statements


3. Where the subject matter of public statements relates directly to staff members’ established expertise, they are encouraged to establish their credentials and give the title of their university position.


Endorsement


4. Staff members should not use the name or logo of the university in the endorsement of products or in third-party advertising in any form unless this is approved by the Vice Chancellor or the Pro Vice Chancellor: International and Development or nominee.


University research


5. University research is attributed first to the university and then, if necessary, to other organisational units.

6. UniSA encourages its researchers to utilise the media in communicating research findings with the wider community and to do so in a responsible manner as required by Section 4 of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. University staff and students should only act as expert spokespersons in areas where their expertise has been established through the process of peer review.

7. Unless immediate publication serves a clear public interest, research findings should not be disseminated to the general public until they have been tested through peer review. In discussing the outcomes of a research project, care should be taken to explain the status of the project (e.g. whether it is still in progress or has been finalised).

8. Researchers should inform those directly affected by the research, including interested parties, before informing the popular media or general public.

9. Any restrictions on communications that have been agreed with a sponsor of a research activity must be honoured. (Such agreements should be entered into with proper regard for the importance of open communication of academic findings.)

Procedure

Advice and assistance on working with the media and identifying research of suitable nature and interest for the public domain is available from the Marketing & Development Unit and on the web at http://www-p.unisa.edu.au/mdu/understandmedia.asp or by telephoning the Director MDU or Manager: News and Media.

 

Explanatory Notes

Introduction

These notes incorporate comments about the policy from senior academics with experience in public comment.

This policy covers three situations. They are:
• Staff members expressing a view on behalf of the university
• Staff members expressing their personal views as private citizens
• Staff members expressing views about matters of public interest on the basis of their professional expertise.


The policy covers in some detail public statements by staff and students about their own research. These sections of the policy are based on the requirements of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research.

The need to act ethically

In our interactions with the public and other stakeholders we should act ethically. This not only means abiding by the rules set down by ethics committees, but thinking carefully about the short- and long-term effects of our statements. These can include damage to the participants of a study (for example, by releasing private information), distortion of public debate (for example, through stepping outside our area of expertise) and damage to the reputation of academia (for example, by making premature or sensationalist claims).

Researchers should honour the letter and spirit of agreements with research subjects, funding bodies, partners and co-authors, and stay within the limits of their established expertise.

Use of a professional title

If you have a PhD or a professional doctorate, you are entitled to use the prefix ‘Dr’ at your discretion. The title does not depend on an employment relationship with this or any other institution.

Titles such as ‘professor’, ‘associate professor’ and ‘director’ are usually granted as part of an employment relationship with a university. These titles will usually be accompanied by the name of the institution which has granted them – for example, Professor X, University of South Australia. You should only use such a title and the name of the institution if you are commenting on an area in which the university has employed you for your expertise.

Established expertise

Academic expertise is usually established through the process of peer review – typically, the assessment by peers of material for publication. Peer review establishes your competence to speak about a particular research finding. However, over a long career, it may also establish your competence to speak more generally about the discipline (see next section - ‘The level of expertise’).

If a recent PhD graduate were asked to comment on the findings of their research, then the examination of their thesis and the granting of the award would be counted as peer review for the purposes of this policy. However, they would be expected only to comment on the findings which formed part of their thesis, and it would be wise for them to seek advice from more experienced colleagues.

Some academic staff are experienced practitioners but may not be active researchers. Such people are qualified to reflect on the practice of their discipline. However, they should bear in mind that they are speaking from a practical point of view and consider referring enquiries to researchers in the field where appropriate.

Good questions to ask yourself are ‘Is my view backed up by high-quality research? If not, is there someone more appropriate to answer this question?’

Staff members may have expertise that has not been assessed through academic peer review but which has been recognised by their peers through, for example, election to a national body. This is particularly relevant to senior professional staff or academic staff in senior management positions.

The level of expertise

If you make a comment in your professional capacity, then it should be commensurate with the level of your expertise.

For example, if you are an experienced academic who has published widely in a discipline, then you may be able to comment on a range of issues related to that discipline. This would be on the basis of both your own body of research and your deep understanding of the literature. However, there may still be times when it would be appropriate to refer an enquiry to a colleague who has more current knowledge.

On the other hand, if you are an early-career researcher with, say, two conference papers and an article in a low-ranked journal, your capacity to comment would be more limited.

Engaging the public in projects

Staff or students may from time to time wish to engage the public in projects. These may be professional or personal. The following examples illustrate some of the differences.

University research

The point is sometimes made that it is researchers who win grants, not institutions. This is complex – grants are generally awarded to institutions but in some cases it is customary for them to be transferred if the lead investigator leaves the institution. On the other hand, projects may come to an institution because it has a large body of expertise in an area, not because of any one researcher. If UniSA is the administering organisation on a research grant, or if the contract for commercial research is with UniSA, then it is reasonable to say that the research is conducted at or by UniSA. If the situation is more complex (for example, if there is a commercial contract with two research partners), then the university simply asks that it is explained as clearly as possible within the limitations of the particular medium. For instance, a five-second TV news sound bite does not allow for much detail, whereas a report in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian or in a trade journal does.

Media inaccuracy

Most people who have dealt with the media have experienced their message being distorted. Often this is accidental. Sometimes it reflects the difficulty of the topic. The university only asks that you make the best efforts to communicate your message clearly.

For example, it may be part of your research funding agreement to provide running reports on a research project to a partner organisation through an in-house or trade journal. If the outcomes have not been peer-reviewed, you should always state this. If the general media picks up on this communication and reprints it without this reservation, then this is not your responsibility, but if you are asked for comment you should make it clear. Apart from anything else, this is a chance to educate the media and the general public about how research findings are validated.

The importance of clarity

There is a great difference between academic communication and media commentary. Some find it easy to switch from one mode to the other, and others find it more difficult. You may be concerned that essential information will be omitted if you do not include it. Paradoxically, this may complicate the message and make it less likely to be reported accurately. It is important to remember that journalists will hardly ever be expert in your field and that they have quite different priorities and performance measures. If you are inexperienced in media commentary, it is always worth seeking advice from a colleague with greater experience or from the UniSA Manager: News and Media, who is very experienced at interpreting academic material for the media.

 

 


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