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I have an opportunity to participate in a contest with a nontrivial monetary prize, which can be summarized as "Describe in details a secure way to do X using technology Y and provide an explanation of why you think it is secure." The contest does not require a grant of any exclusive rights for the work, hence I am free to use my work elsewhere too, e.g. to publish it. Clearly earning money from the contest and getting a publication sounds nice, but can it be done in an ethically sound way?

The tricky thing is that it is debated in the literature whether doing X using technology Y is a good or a terrible idea from the security point of view. While I intend to do my best to present a balanced point of view including the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed solution, I recognize the obvious conflict of interest, and, hence, that despite my attempts to be unbiased when I rewrite the paper for a journal, it is unlikely that it will become completely unbiased. In general I want to avoid doing anything that might be considered unethical with respect to reviewers or readers of the paper.

What is the best ethical way to handle the situation?


FYI: this is not duplicate to:

  • Can I Publish Research if I work for the company?, which addresses issues specific to the interaction with the employer on the right to publish (not an issue here), and issues specific to ethical control required for studies on human subjects (not an issue here since this is IT).
  • Clear explanation of Conflict of Interest with examples in journal articles asks for the explanation of what CoI means and examples of it in papers, and receives "Potential conflicts of interest" paragraphs in the acknowledgments section of the papers in response. While I recognize the need to include such paragraph in case of the publication, it seems to me that such paragraph may not be the only thing I would need to consider.
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  • Book authors get money. Invited speakers might get money. Even teachers get money (not much, admittedly). Conflicts? – Buffy Dec 29 '20 at 21:15
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    @Buffy In this case the compensation is granted only for developing a secure way to do X using Y, not for arguments that doing X using Y is a bad idea from security PoV. If such research is published, it is in a potential conflict of interest with the desire of potential readers to know an unbiased answer to the question "Is it a good idea to do X using Y?": they would prefer to read the paper resulting from a research sponsored regardless of the outcome. – fiktor Dec 29 '20 at 21:36
  • What is the relationship between the contest and the publication? Is this contest run by a journal? – Anonymous Physicist Dec 30 '20 at 1:00
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    @Anonymous Physicist: There is no known relationship between the contest organizers and any journal. – fiktor Dec 30 '20 at 6:18
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Unless I'm missing something, I don't really see the conflict. Write the paper when the time comes and submit it. If an editor or reviewer thinks you have a biased viewpoint that incorrectly impacts on what you have to say, they will probably catch it and reject the paper. But, I think a biased outcome is different from a conflict of interest.

And your comment suggests that if you don't develop the methodology you won't be in the running for the prize in any case.

For full disclosure you can include a statement in the paper (or to the editor) that "This paper was (awarded top prize)/(a finalist)/(submitted)/(soundly rejected)/(disparaged from the podium) at the 87th annual underwater basket weaving festival of doing Y to achieve X securely". Whatever best describes the history of the work.

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  • Good answer. The conflict is that the company is providing an incentive to show that Y is better than Z, when it might be that Z is better than Y. Asker didn't say what Z is. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 30 '20 at 6:37

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