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Upholding ACM's Principles

By Marty J. Wolf, Don Gotterbarn, Michael Kirkpatrick

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 64 No. 8, Page 21
10.1145/3473051

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In response to serious violations against ACM's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, the ACM Council voted unanimously to revoke the ACM membership of Tao Li, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Florida, at its meeting on June 11, 2021. The Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE) recommended this action to Council after considering the evidence it received concerning Li's repeated violations of the ACM's Code of Ethics (https://www.acm.org/code-of-ethics). Council's action demonstrates ACM's commitment to advancing computing as a profession and as a service to society. ACM is not alone in this commitment. Indeed, other professional organizations have adopted ACM's Code of Ethics indicating their support of its values and the positive impact its Principles afford the computing community.

Both ACM and IEEE received complaints about Li's actions surrounding two computer architecture conferences: The 2019 IEEE International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA) and the 2017 ACM Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems (ASPLOS). A Joint Investigation Committee (JIC) was convened in early 2020 and a team of professional investigators were hired. As a result of the investigation, JIC filed an ACM Code of Ethics violation complaint against Li, submitting as evidence the investigators' final report. COPE reviewed the evidence and determined that Li willfully violated scientific research integrity standards. Quite simply, Li orchestrated an attack on the ethical computing values expressed in the ACM Code of Ethics and most other codes of scientific conduct.

In one case, Li's actions involved a paper submitted to ISCA '19 authored by his graduate student, Huixiang Chen. Evidence exposed dozens of messages that "make clear that Dr. Li intentionally breached the peer review process for the paper in multiple ways: he repeatedly shared the reviewers' names and their scores of the paper with Chen; he manufactured support for the paper by asking Chen to draft messages for paper reviewers to post on the conference's software platform; he then passed those reviews on to the reviewers; and, in two instances, the reviewers posted the reviews that Chen had written at Li's direction." Further, the evidence showed that Li coerced Chen to publish the paper after Chen raised concerns that the work contained incorrect or falsified results.

In another case, Li shared his reviewer credentials for the 2017 ASPLOS conference paper submission system with some of his students to enable them to download confidential draft materials. Further, the investigation uncovered evidence that Li inappropriately approached reviewers in connection with other conferences.

Throughout the investigation, Li knowingly and intentionally proposed obvious false theories and spurious procedural arguments in order to thwart it.

In the end, the evidence showed that Li deliberately and repeatedly undermined the peer review process of at least three conferences, and he had actively encouraged others to engage in activities to support and facilitate these attacks. Li knowingly interfered with efforts to maintain the integrity of research and publication processes, and he violated the community standards expressed in ACM's Code of Ethics. His actions demonstrated a lack of respect for, and an unwillingness to abide by, the Code's Principles, and he intentionally organized an assault on them for his own benefit.

Based on the clear and convincing evidence that Li flagrantly violated several Principles of the Code, ACM terminated Li's involvement with all ACM-affiliated or ACM SIG-affiliated activities (including conference organizing or program committees) both in person or remotely. He is banned from publishing articles in ACM-affiliated conference proceedings or journals until 2036.

Principle 4.2 of the Code has us "[t]reat violations of the Code as inconsistent with membership in the ACM." The evidence presented by the JIC clearly indicated that Li's behavior was not only inconsistent with the Code, but that he actively worked to attack the core values and ethical practice expected for members of the ACM. Consequently, COPE further recommended that Li's ACM membership be revoked, and Council voted in agreement to officially cut all ties with him.

ACM policy generally prevents COPE from commenting publicly on cases it reviews, but in this case Council directed COPE to make a public statement. ACM's Code indicates that "the public good is the paramount consideration" in decision making and describes key ethical principles as essential elements of computing professionalism. The ACM is committed to upholding these Principles. By providing some details of this case, we hope to prevent future behavior that undermines these values. ACM members should promote the public good through computing and should actively and publicly resist behavior which threatens it.

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Authors

Marty J. Wolf serves as co-chair of the ACM Committee on Professional Ethics.

Don Gotterbarn serves as co-chair of the ACM Committee on Professional Ethics.

Michael Kirkpatrick is a member of the ACM Committee on Professional Ethics.


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