Ethics and law#

Laws are made by humans. They reflect the outcomes of negotiations between different people, with different interests and different amounts of power. Complying with laws is usually necessary, but rarely sufficient, to ensure that you are acting ethically.

Domestic and regional law#

You should be aware of what laws cover the open science work that you are doing. This will depend on which jurisdictions you work in: usually the geographical area covered by a law. You should be aware of the laws that cover you at local, state or regional, national, and international levels.

You should also be aware what steps you should take to ensure that you are compliant with all relevant laws. This section is not exhaustive! It is designed to give you some idea of the kinds of laws you should be aware of.

Data protection law#

Data protection laws cover what is permitted by law when collecting and processing data. The aim of data protection laws is to protect the privacy of individuals when collecting and using information about them.

Data protection laws need to be updated frequently in order to make sure they cover all the ways that different actors are using new forms of technology to collect and use data in new ways. Because data protection laws sit at the limits of what companies - especially big tech giants - are able to do, the process of making, updating and enforcing data protection laws has become increasingly newsworthy. For example, new pieces of legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU have attracted a lot of attention.

Many countries have a national data protection authority, which is tasked with protecting data. They often produce guidance on how to comply with data protection laws in their country. Wikipedia has a list of data protection authorities covering lots of countries.

Data protection laws are sometimes confused with privacy laws, but they are not the same thing.

Privacy law#

Privacy laws protect people’s ability to keep themselves, or information about themselves, away from public view. The specific content of privacy laws varies between jurisdictions. Laws may be general, or they may only cover certain kinds of information, sometimes referred to as ‘sensitive information’ or ‘personally identifiable information.’ This might include, for example, medical or financial information about a person.

Privacy laws have periodically been updated to take into account new technologies, which have offered new ways for privacy to be invaded and for information about people to be shared. This started in the 19th century when newspapers became widespread, and is still happening as legislators try to keep up with developments in the internet and in data collection.

Privacy is sometimes confused with data protection, but it is much broader. For example, the right to privacy protects individuals from having blood samples taken without their permission. It means that body searches must be done in a way that preserves the dignity of the person being searched, and that home searches must only be done to search for evidence, not for harassment. It also makes laws that criminalise private, consensual sex between adults of the same sex unlawful (nonetheless, these laws have not yet been repealed everywhere). Privacy is also a human right.

Intellectual property law#

Intellectual property refers to creations that have been made by humans. These can include literary and artistic works, as well as inventions. They can also include scientific works and discoveries. Intellectual property rights aim to protect the interests of the creators of these works.

These can include:

  • copyright: covers creative works, and gives the owner the right to make copies.

  • trademark: covers goods or services, and identifies them as coming from a particular provider.

  • patent: covers inventions, and gives the owner the right to stop other actors from making or selling that invention.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (the UN agency which oversees intellectual property issues) has produced FAQs on copyright, trademarks, and patents.

The extent to which any intellectual property is protected in law varies by jurisdiction, and is often time-limited. Enforcement of intellectual property law also varies by jurisdiction. In general, it is the owner of the intellectual property who is responsible for enforcing their rights, for example by suing another person in court.

You should know who owns the intellectual property you create. In some situations, it will be you personally. If you are employed, depending on the terms of your employment, your employer may own the intellectual property you create while you work for them. This may impact what you are able to do with the intellectual property you create, including the terms under which you can license it. The relationship between intellectual property law and open source is complicated but it is not necessarily incompatible.

If you own the intellectual property that you create, you should think carefully about how to license it. If you do not explicitly license your content differently, it generally falls under copyright and technically cannot be remixed without your permission. This can present problems for working openly!

You may use an open license to share code, or content, or both. There are lots of licenses designed especially for sharing broadly, and organizations like Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation have created tools and resources to facilitate sharing of content, data and code. There is more information in the Licensing chapter.

Tort law#

Tort law is the branch of law which allows people who have been harmed to sue for compensation or other remedy for that harm. Tort law varies by jurisdiction. It can include both harm that arises from negligence, and intentional harm. If you harm someone, either intentionally or negligently, you may be legally liable for the harm caused.

Acting ethically, however, usually means going beyond thinking only about legal liability. You should be aware of all the possible harm that your work could cause, not only what you might be legally liable for.

Contract law#

Contract law is the branch of law which handles how contracts - legal agreements between parties - are enforced. You should know the terms of contracts you have signed, and what those terms mean. You should also know which jurisdiction covers the contract you have signed (this should be in the contract).

Ethical work can also include thinking critically about contracts. You should think about what obligations you are signing up for when you sign a contract. You should also think about what contractual obligations you are imposing on other people when you form a contract with them.

How to change laws#

Law is not static and unchanging. The law is made by humans and it can be changed by humans. If you feel that the law in your jurisdiction works in a way that is unhelpful or damaging, consider joining efforts to change it! Changing laws is a long-term project and can take decades.

This section is not intended to explain how to do this: a good place to start is to find a campaigning organisation who is working on the issue, and ask them how to get involved.

See details in the chapters on Activism for Researchers for more details.


Policy is a general term for a set of ideas or principles that guide actions in particular situations. Policies are not legally binding, but they are designed to encourage certain kinds of behaviours and discourage others. For example, the Turing Way community agrees to abide by the policy set out in the Code of Conduct.

Policies are agreed between groups of people: this can be at organisational, intra-organisational, or governmental level. It is useful to be aware, for example, of policies on ethical research and innovation that are set by your government, or your funding organisation. For example, the American Statistical Association has created ethical guidelines for statistical practice. Policies can also be set by national or international organisations. If you are a member of a professional or academic organisation, you should be aware of the policies that cover ethical research for your profession.

Many ethical guidelines that have been produced are in the form of policy. These can provide useful guidance.

Because policies are the result of negotiation and agreement, they can be influenced. If you don’t think your professional organisation’s policies are strong or effective enough, you can lobby for changes as a member of that organisation. The process for doing this will depend on the organisation. Many companies and organisations have advocacy and lobbying staff who argue for changes in government policy that will benefit their organisation.

See details in the chapters on Internal Policy Advocacy for more details.