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I received an email from a graduate student at a well-known university in the UK. The email is a marketing email for a campaign run by a company the writer of the email is affiliated with. The campaign is about something that may possibly be of interest to people in academia, so I bear no ill will to the writer for sending me such an email. However, I have concerns about the way the writer presented him/herself. The email starts roughly as follows:

Hi [recipient's name],

I am a PhD student at [name of university] and I am writing to tell you about [the campaign]
[... long marketing blurb ...]
[... request that I forward the email to other people.]

and ends roughly with

Sincerely,

[writer's name]
PhD candidate, [name of university]
[name of department]
[university-affiliated email address]
[link to the company's website]

The things about the email that got my attention are:

  • The writer presents him/herself as a PhD student in the opening and signature of the email.

  • The email is sent from the writer's university email account.

  • The email is about a campaign run by a non-university entity (a for-profit operation, to judge from a look at the website linked to at the bottom of the email) that the writer is affiliated with.

  • The writer does not explicitly explain his/her connection to or affiliation with said entity, except indirectly by saying things like "we believe ..." and "our mission is ...".

  • In a later short email exchange I had with the writer, (s)he seemed fairly polite and well-intentioned (specifically, I emailed the student to say I will not be forwarding the email to anyone at my department since it is not relevant to them, and (s)he emailed back apologizing for the inconvenience and promising to remove me from the mailing list). So, my impression is that although the details above may may make it sound like this is a very shady and dishonest attempt to create the impression that the campaign is originating from the writer's university, it is possible that using the university email and affiliation was done out of naivety and lack of thought rather than out of an intent to deceive.

My questions are:

  1. Is it acceptable for a graduate student who is involved with a non-university entity to use their university email to send marketing emails for their non-university campaigns?

  2. Is it acceptable for graduate students to send mass-distribution emails of any sort from their university email accounts? Does this violate any standard policies university IT departments have, particularly in the UK?

  3. Is it acceptable for a graduate student who is also involved with a non-university entity to represent themselves as a PhD student in connection with a marketing email that they send out? (Note that this is a separate question than questions 1-2 above; i.e., assume that the email is sent from a private email server but that the writer is mentioning their status as a PhD candidate at a well-known university, e.g., in an attempt to gain credibility. Is this okay?)

To clarify, by "is it acceptable" I mean that I am interested in these questions from several different angles, such as: are such behaviors ethical? Are they legal? Do they violate any standard policies that universities, particularly in the UK, have? Do they violate any cultural norms within academia or the larger professional world? If I complain about the student's email practices to their department, are they likely to get in serious trouble? Etc.

  • 1
    Note that it is possible to send e-mail with a university address using a third server (e.g., private or ISP). In general, it is possible to send e-mail from any address using any server. – fkraiem Nov 7 '15 at 0:26
  • @fkraiem good point. However, what troubles me (and I'm wondering if it would bother the university) is not only the student's use of physical resources such as the email server, but the use of the university's brand name in connection with an unrelated commercial enterprise. This would be an issue even if they used a private server to send out an email that only appears to come from the student's university email. – Dan Romik Nov 7 '15 at 5:12
  • I would forward the said student this thread... – 50k4 Nov 9 '15 at 15:51
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Well, I'd start with university technology-use policies, which this student is quite likely to have broken. Where I am, policy contains the following stipulation:

Commercial, Political, and Non-University Activities

Users may not use University IT resources to sell or solicit sales for any goods, services, or contributions unless such use conforms to {university} rules and regulations governing the use of University resources. They may not use University IT resources to represent the interests of any non-University group or organization unless authorized by an appropriate University department.

Another possibility may be called something like "non-academic misconduct" (to separate it from "academic misconduct" such as plagiarism or cheating) or an "honor code violation."

If you care to pursue either of these avenues, you'll have to hunt down appropriate chapter and verse at the student's institution, as well as instructions for reporting.

If you don't care to be this formal, and if you know any faculty or staff in the student's department, a "what the actual heck is this and did you folks know about it?" email might be the way to go. Where I am this would certainly be grounds for at least a stern conference with the student, and at worst, non-academic misconduct charges.

  • There's an outside chance this is social-science research of some sort? But I have trouble imagining how a study of this nature would be deemed vital enough by the ethics committee to permit deceptive email. – D.Salo Nov 7 '15 at 0:20
  • No, it is clearly not social-science research. Thanks for the answer - I googled the email usage policy for the institution in question and it does appear that the student is violating a clause forbidding the use of email to send out commercial material and mass emails. – Dan Romik Nov 7 '15 at 5:09
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    The first sentence of the quoted policy reads to me as circular (and thus empty): "Users may not use resources... unless such use conforms to.... rules and regulations governing the use of University resources". – Daniel R. Collins Nov 7 '15 at 7:07
  • Yeah, it's a prudent punt to other relevant policies, which as best I know would not excuse the email the OP received. – D.Salo Nov 7 '15 at 15:05
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In my institution (not in the UK) the relevant policy has two parts. First, the burden is put on the user to establish that an act is allowed, because users are responsible for ascertaining what authorizations are necessary and for obtaining them before proceeding. Use of university IT resources is not prohibited but is frowned on, specifically "personal use of university computing resources for other purposes is permitted when it does not consume a significant amount of those resources, does not interfere with the performance of the user's job or other university responsibilities, and is otherwise in compliance with this policy". However, specific units may also impose further restrictions if they want. My department ran its own mail server, so it could impose an absolute ban on sending emails that attempt to drum up business. In lieu of such a ban, an action to punish the individual would have to be based on showing that it consumed a significant amount of resources or interfered with the person's university responsibilities. It does not sound as though this persons use would cross that threshhold. There are also policies against "claiming to speak for the university", but stating that you are affiliated with a university does not constitute claiming to speak for a university. (Professors frequently make public political statements and list their affiliation, without running afoul of the "claiming to speak for the university" rule).

So, indeed, you would start with the university policy.

0

As @D.Salo already said, university IT use policies typically do not allow commercial ads to be sent out.

But there are scenarios where such use of the university IT and even the university as affiliation is OK or even wanted (from the university/funding agency point of view):

  • Obviously, whenever the university approved this use.
  • One reason for the university to do so is: The company may be a spin-off of the university.
  • As one example, one of the conditions of the "exist" business founding support programs for university spin-offs in Germany is that the university has to support the company (or company-to-be) with resources including use of university IT.
    So such a spin-off may be using university IT resources like the university email server or even university IT hosting their company web page.

  • That being said, from the company point of view I'd always try to spread the company email address as much as possible (as they have their own website, there should be email addresses as well - who technically provides these services is secondary).
    It would be a marketing nightmare if people remember the university email instead of the company...

  • As for whether it is acceptable that a marketing email writing PhD student points out they're PhD student: as long as they really are the PhD student they are allowed to tell whomever that they are.
    Whether it is smart to point this out in the email is again a completely different question, where the answer would depend very much on how tightly the field of the thesis and the marketed product are related.
    (Similar to my thoughts about the email address, I don't think a "PhD student" signature is a smart move for the company. Depending on the product, it may be good to state the profession, though)

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