# Should we relax the requirement for disclosing affiliation on the site?

There is a general rule on the Stack Exchange network that states that if you post an answer suggesting something you are involved with (e.g. a tool you wrote or a blog post you authored or whatever), then you should explicitly state your affiliation:

The community here tends to vote down overt self-promotion and flag it as spam. Post good, relevant answers, and if some (but not all) happen to be about your product or website, that’s okay. However, you must disclose your affiliation in your answers.

However, this is mostly aimed at people selling their product. In the scientific world, tools are usually accompanied by peer reviewed articles pointing out both their flaws and their advantages. It is very common for someone to write a tool and offer it to the community for free. Therefore, it is usually easier to make an informed decision about the tool, reducing the importance of disclosing author affiliation. We also tend to be much more open about the flaws of our software (OK, not always, but often).

We want these people to post here and we want them to post about their tools. At least two of our moderators (hint: not me), for example, are authors of widely used tools. Do we really need authors of tools to explicitly state their authorship in every single post? Perhaps it would be enough to have them say so on their profiles?

My feeling is that in a professional community like this one, in a field where the vast majority of tools are free and open source anyway, it would be OK to relax this requirement. If you come here and just post links to your blog as answers, that's not cool. I also see some problems if the tool in question isn't a well known, peer reviewed one. But I feel it is very unlikely that we'll get random "script kiddies" who've written anything that could be useful in this field and even less likely that we'll get commercial spam. So if you are the author of a standard tool and many or most of your answers are about that tool, then I don't see much of a problem.

Sure, it would be great if people also mentioned that they have authored the tool, if only to lend their answer the extra authority that confers, but should we really insist on it as is done on other sites of the network? Or should we relax the requirement in the specific cases where authors of software tools post answers using those tools?

What should our rules on this be?

The fact that many of the tools presented on this site are open-source does not mean that there are not very real benefits to be derived from touting them. This is because in an open-source world users are also testers, and because making code open-source does not mean relinquishing one's claim to authorship over that code.

As a methods developer in acadaemia, these are some benefits that I could derive from more people using my code:

1. Bug reports
2. Usability testing
3. Good reputation
4. Citations

These potential benefits, in fact, are reasons why I make my code open-source. Furthermore, the last point is, for better or for worse, the currency of acadaemia. This currency is quite valuable to anyone looking to make a career in acadaemia and in my opinion could very much form the basis of a conflict of interest.

Sure, there may be people on this site who have already "made it" in acadaemia and therefore find the aforementioned benefits less valuable, but the same is true for monetary benefits. That should not stop us from applying the same rules to everyone.

I don't expect long treatises on conflicts of interest, but a short sentence explaining the type of potential conflict of interest and a pointer to a poster's profile when relevant is in order.

• FWIW I'm frequently in the position where I have a potential conflict of interest because part of my job is to increase usage of certain tools like GATK, so here's how I try to deal with it: (1) if someone asks "how do I do X with GATK" I just answer the question factually, no disclosure; (2) if someone asks "what tool should I use to do X", I say something like "this is how you can use GATK to do X; note that I work for the developers of GATK". I think we can ask people to make a good faith effort. Apr 24 '20 at 17:14

We need to keep those limits of affiliation.

1. This is not a social network so I don't think that a user should visit another user profile to find such information. As in scientific papers, one discloses possible conflicts of interests in each paper, not in the user profile of the journal nor ORCID, nor ...
2. When providing an answer with a software one has contributed or created providing a line saying the relation with the software is not so hard or long. A user might contribute to the site with related programs not directly his own creations, so in those cases the line wouldn't be needed. And having to check for the profile would be cumbersome.
3. I hope that commercial software or people from companies might also come here to answer questions, and if they do, they should disclose their affiliation. Not requiring to state the affiliation on the answer will hurt the quality of the site on the long run.
• I beg to disagree. This is a social network. Very specialized but a social network. Therefore linking you other profiles here is perfectly valid thing to do. Sometimes I also like to check who is answering this question. However, at the same time, I think it's wise to keep requirements on users to minimum, because we are still struggling with the size of the community on this page.
– Kamil S Jaron Mod
Mar 8 '18 at 16:59
• @Kamil See this post. I'm not saying that you can't or shouldn't be able to track people but that the focus is not on people but on the content. If your affiliation is relevant then it is part of the value you bring to the content so it should be with the content of your answer. Also if now we lower the user requirements to minimum will raising them later work? I fear the site will disappear. Besides, we (read I) don't know if it is possible to lower the requirements of affiliation. Has any site done this?
– llrs
Mar 8 '18 at 17:07

I'll give an incredibly biased answer and say that we should just relax these rules. The tools are free as in beer and speech, so the only real interest we have in people using our tools are possible future citations. It doesn't hurt to mention on our profiles when we're the author of a particular tool, but I imagine that'd get a bit long (Pierre Lindenbaum would need a couple hundred lines for all of his stuff). There's also the complication that since this is open source software, a lot of us have contributed bits of code to other's software, but I don't think that's worth mentioning. A good rule, then, might be to just mention on your profile the major packages for which you're one of the main developers. That or maybe something like "I'm the primary developer behind BWA, minimap2, seqtk, among a number of other tools. See my github page for more details." for user172818.

At the end of the day, divulging affiliation is meant to shine light on conflicts of interest. When such conflicts don't exist (due to there being no tangible benefit to others using your stuff), such a divulgence is a "nice to have" at most and "irrelevant noise" at worst.

• I'm not sure it's true that conflicts of interest arise only from tangible benefits. A developer might advocate for their tool out of ego even if they don't get any direct benefit out of it. That's a form of bias, and as the reader I would want to know that relationship exists between the commenter and the thing they're recommending. Apr 24 '20 at 17:03

I don't think it's so important to disclose affiliations to a tool if the question is specifically about that tool, but if I were asking for general advice about how best to solve a problem, I'd prefer to know if the solution someone recommends is something that they wrote. Citations = promotions =  so I think there is a conflict of interest. In any case, it's certainly not unbiased advice. I also think it's useful to have rules in place in case people do start running amok with self promotion. I would prefer to see tweaks to how rules are enforced rather getting rid of them altogether.

• Oh, yes, the question here is first of all only to open a discussion and second is suggesting we might want to relax the rules, not get rid of them altogether. Mar 6 '18 at 16:41
• You get promoted for citations? I want to work where you are :)
– Devon Ryan Mod
Mar 8 '18 at 1:05