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Wait, what?! Haven't we already discussed the subject of a general disclaimer on the site?

Why yes, yes we have.

And in that discussion, the consensus was that "No, we don't."

But that conclusion has been invalidated due to changes within Stack Exchange at the Health and Law sites. TL;DR - they have site specific disclaimers, and we're allowed to request one if we'd like.

As the author of the answer that said we don't need a disclaimer, I'd like to retract my answer and re-open the question for discussion here on the site. My personal opinion is that I think we need a disclaimer and I would welcome suggestions on how to phrase the disclaimer.


Does Engineering need a general site disclaimer, and if so, what should it look like?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd suggest editing your previous answer with a link to this question. $\endgroup$ – Wasabi Jan 29 '16 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ what's the problem you're trying to fix? Or, more specifically, do you have any evidence that the lack of a disclaimer is discouraging a significant number of experts from contributing answers? $\endgroup$ – 410 gone Feb 16 '16 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ @EnergyNumbers - My primary concern at this point is the potential liability that professional engineers on the site may be exposed to. As hazzey points out, the majority of US states have comity agreements in place. That can massively backfire against a professional should one state claim that a user is practicing engineering without being registered in that state based upon their participation here. I was fine with my earlier answer from 2015 up until Law and Health broke precedent with their disclaimers. I believe that our not having a disclaimer potentially leaves our users exposed. $\endgroup$ – user16 Feb 16 '16 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ Do you have any evidence at all that it leaves our users exposed? i.e. can you cite successful cases of sanctions that were imposed on someone because they provided anonymous engineering tips on the web? That is to say - do you have any evidence here that there is an actual problem that needs solving? $\endgroup$ – 410 gone Feb 16 '16 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ @EnergyNumbers - it's a more subtle problem than that. US state technical boards routinely issue "cease and desist" type letters to unlicensed individuals who appear to advertising services or practicing engineering in their jurisdiction. Those boards are allowed to assess fines as well. With other licensed professional SE sites having a disclaimer, the onus is upon us to do the same. And yes, I do know of a local board issuing a cease and desist to an individual based upon their social media profile. $\endgroup$ – user16 Feb 16 '16 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ re your last sentence - was that someone who posted anonymously on web sites? Please can you edit the link to the case into the question, and summarise the outcome? $\endgroup$ – 410 gone Feb 16 '16 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @EnergyNumbers - No, the social media posting was not anonymous or pseudo-anonymous. They were actively soliciting engineering services under their real name. But it's worth noting that not all Engineering or SE users participate under a handle and instead chose to use their real name. I can't post a link to the case as it was with a state that does not provide public records for disciplinary actions. $\endgroup$ – user16 Feb 16 '16 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ I would still like to revisit this question. Especially so things like at the top of this answer don't have to be added... $\endgroup$ – hazzey May 18 '18 at 18:15
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In addition to hazzey's excellent answer, I want to provide a simplified version of the risks to the community that I perceive if we don't have a disclaimer. This is a US centric answer, but I suspect it is extensible to other locales.

Without a disclaimer, a user's contributions to the site are subject to any locale's interpretation of if that user is practicing engineering. Certain subjects, such as home modifications, could be sufficient such that a professional board interprets the user as practicing engineering without a license in that locale.

With a disclaimer, a user would have to explicitly state "I am a licensed engineer, and you may consider this to be professional engineering advice" before a board would have grounds to pursue a contributing user for practicing engineering without a license.

I also think that experts in the field will be dissuaded from contributing to the site if they feel that their licensure would be in jeopardy by participating. As hazzey notes, sanctions in one jurisdiction can have ramifications in many others.

So I don't see any downside to having the disclaimer in place, and I see plenty of positive aspects for the community from having the disclaimer.

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Note: This answer is completely USA focused.


Yes, we need a disclaimer.

Just like other sites that have a disclaimer (Law and Health), Engineering is a profession that is regulated by each individual state.

  1. Each state has laws that make it illegal to "practice engineering" without a license in that state. Note that the phrase "practice engineering" is in quotes because the term is not clearly defined overly broad (see one state's definition at the end).
  2. Each state also has language in its Professional Engineering statues that say that if your license is revoked/suspended in other states, it will also be done in this state.

Put the two items together and add "on the internet". A licensed Professional Engineer could lose his/her license or ability to be licensed in every state simply by someone suing that engineering was being "practiced" in a state where the person does not have a license. On the internet there is no way to control where a user reads an answer and follows through without proper precautions. No engineering company is going to want to defend lawsuits that come to their employees based on internet postings.

Identity

The first argument against needing a disclaimer is: Who would sue over random information found on the internet?

This is a good point, but the information is not always given by random people on the internet.

I wouldn't trust random user hazzey, but I am much more likely to trust My Real Name, P.E.. I can also find the state(s) where My Real Name, P.E. is licensed and look up their details including license number.

Now I am not trusting hazzey. I am trusting My Real Name, P.E. and following that person's advice.

This may scare off future contributers who may not be interested in creating a fake internet persona. Those people are also likely to be the experts.

I have a lot of respect for users who use their real names here.

How this affects ME.

I am a frequent contributer on this site. The reasons above directly affect how I contribute to this site. I do not talk about specific projects, and I water-down questions and answers so that there is a very limited amount of information that could be used to identify me. I do not use my name or picture for these reasons. I also do not list my state or which state(s) I hold license(s).

References to back up the above statements.

These are publicly available references to licensing boards that have issued disciplinary actions for issues that might come from using this site. There are no actual lawsuits listed, because I lack the expertise to find those even if they are public.

From Texas:

Mr. X, P.E., Y, Wisconsin - File D-1425 - The Colorado Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors issued Mr. X a Stipulation and Final Agency Order which required him to complete an engineering ethics course, comply with Colorado statutes, regulations and rules of conduct governing engineering practice and assessed him a $750.00 penalty for failing to meet generally accepted standards of engineering on three residential foundation projects by relying on data provided to him by his clients. Based upon the action taken in Colorado, Mr. X's Texas engineer license was also subject to censure; therefore, the Board accepted a Consent Order signed by Mr. X to Refuse to Renew his Texas engineer license. Disciplinary action taken in October 9, 2003 Board meeting.

or,

Mr. X, Y, MI - File D-1158 - Mr. X’s engineer license was revoked in North Carolina for performing engineering outside his area of expertise, sealing work not performed by him or under his direct supervision, and failure to seal other related engineering documents. Mr. X also signed a Consent Order for the revocation of his license in South Carolina for his actions in North Carolina. The Texas Board accepted a Consent Order signed by Mr. X for the revocation of his Texas license based on his action in North Carolina. Disciplinary action taken in March 10, 2000 Board meeting.

From New York:

Licensee admitted to the charge of allowing an engineering company to offer and/or practice engineering in the State of Ohio without a Certificate of Authorization.

or,

Licensee did not contest charges of improper professional practice or professional misconduct by a duly authorized professional disciplinary agency of another state(s) where the conduct upon which the finding was based would, if committed in New York State, constitute professional misconduct under the laws of New York State, specifically Missouri discipline, and Kansas discipline and filing a false report.

or,

Licensee admitted to the charge of allowing an engineering company to offer and/or practice engineering in the State of Oklahoma without a Certificate of Authorization.

or,

Licensee admitted to the charge of practicing the profession of engineering without having completed the mandatory continuing education requirements.

From California:

Investigation revealed that X violated sections 8792(g) and (h) of the Business and Professions Code. The records of the Board show that X is not licensed by the Board as a Professional Land Surveyor. Investigation revealed that X listed himself as a land surveyor in his candidate's statement on a ballot for election to the Officer of the Assessor of San Luis Obispo County.

or,

Investigation revealed that X violated section 6787(h) of the Business and Professions Code. The records of the Board show that X is not licensed by the Board as a Professional Engineer. Investigation revealed that X used the initials "P.E.," An abbreviation of a restricted titled, on his business cards.

or,

An investigation revealed that X, an unlicensed individual, prepared a design for a storage space to be attached to a commercial building in violation of Business and Professions Code section 6787(a).

or,

An investigation determined that X, a person not licensed by the Board, violated Business and Professions Code sections 6787(a) and (g) by offering structural (civil) engineering services within a contract to provide design and construction planning services for a 4-unit housing project. His contract included "structural engineering as required." Structural engineering falls within the definition of civil engineering; therefore, the person providing and/or offering those services must be licensed as a civil engineer. An informal conference was scheduled following receipt of X's July 14, 2004, letter disputing the charges against him, stating that he did not deny structural engineering was included as part of his contracts; but that he always hires a licensed structural engineer to prepare the engineering documents. California law does not allow someone who is not licensed to offer to provide civil or structural engineering services regardless of who does the actual engineering.

or,

Investigation determined that X, who is not licensed by the Board as a professional engineer, violated Business and Professions Code sections 6787(h) and 6732, in that he was using the title "professional engineer" and the abbreviation "P.E." on his website. He was contacted concerning the violation and agreed to have the references to the title or abbreviations of the title "professional engineer" immediately removed from his website. Several months later, his site had not been corrected. At an informal conference in March 2005, X stated he had not meant to use a restricted title; that his title should have PhD, not P.E

Safety

None of the information above even touches the idea of safety, or what may happen if someone is injured. Lawsuits where there are injuries or death are well known for casting a very wide net that includes people who aren't directly involved.

Will a Disclaimer Help?

There is no guarantee that posting a disclaimer will help deflect liability or law suits. It will be one extra layer of protection though. As mentioned at the beginning, if lawyers and doctors feel that this extra layer of protection is necessary, it should be needed for engineers as well.

Definition of "Practice of engineering"

This is Oklahoma's definition:

"Practice of engineering" means any service or creative work, the adequate performance of which requires engineering education, training and experience in the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical and engineering sciences to such services or creative work as consultation, investigation, evaluation, planning and design of engineering works and systems, planning the engineering use of land and water, teaching of advanced engineering subjects or courses related thereto, engineering research, engineering surveys, engineering studies, and the inspection or review of construction for the purposes of assuring compliance with drawings and specifications; any of which embraces such services or work, either public or private, in connection with any utilities, structures, buildings, machines, equipment, processes, work systems, projects, and industrial or consumer products or equipment of a mechanical, electrical, chemical, environmental, hydraulic, pneumatic or thermal nature, insofar as they involve safeguarding life, health or property, and including such other professional services as may be necessary to the design review and integration of a multidiscipline work, planning, progress and completion of any engineering services.

A person or entity shall be construed to practice or offer to practice engineering, within the meaning and intent of Section 475.1 et seq. of this title who does any of the following: practices any branch of the profession of engineering; by verbal claim, sign, advertisement, letterhead, card or in any other way represents such person to be a professional engineer, through the use of some other title implies that any person is a professional engineer or is licensed or qualified under Section 475.1 et seq. of this title; or who represents qualifications or ability to perform or who does practice engineering;

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    $\begingroup$ Oh! I hadn't even considered the aspect of board hearings for practicing engineering without a license. That's an exceptionally poignant point. $\endgroup$ – user16 Jan 28 '16 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Minestrone - Yes, hazzey's answer is US centric. Updates or an additional answer from an international perspective would be welcomed. One challenge there is the diversity of each jurisdiction and associated regulations. $\endgroup$ – user16 Jan 28 '16 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ @GlenH7 I added one state's definition of "Practice of engineering." The definition is so broad as to completely encompass any use of this site (e.g. specialized knowledge; math). Also, the second paragraph seems to allow for a disclaimer, e.g. if a "verbal claim" is enough to be considered practicing, then a "verbal" (text) claim should be enough to show that you are NOT practicing. $\endgroup$ – hazzey Jan 28 '16 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ You've given a lot of examples of licensing board issues, but it's very hard to tell how many, if any, are relevant. How many examples are left if you include only the ones that were caused by people offering anonymous advice on the internet? $\endgroup$ – 410 gone Feb 16 '16 at 1:57
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Note 1: This answer is community wiki and is intended for collaborative work on developing a disclaimer for the site if we chose to have one.

Note 2: The initial draft of these two disclaimers came from the Law.SE site. Between Health and Law, the legal profession more closely matches the engineering profession.


Engineering Stack Exchange is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized advice from a qualified professional engineer. No use of Engineering Stack Exchange shall be considered to be engaging in the practice of engineering.

And for the broader disclaimer which will be linked through the "educational purposes only" text:

The information, advice, links and/or any other materials (“Content”) made available through Engineering Stack Exchange (the “Site”) are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional engineering advice or consultation. You should contact a qualified licensed engineer to obtain advice with respect to any important engineering issue or problem. Do not disregard or delay in obtaining professional advice based on any Content from the Site. Content may not be complete, correct, or up to date, and some Content may be obtained or provided without proper citation or review. Content made available through the Site does not represent endorsements or recommendations by Stack Exchange or other users. Use of and access to the Site or any Content on the Site, or any of the e-mail, website, social media or other like links contained within the Site, does not constitute engaging in the practice of engineering between those posing or responding to inquiries, or any other users, even if licensed individuals in the corresponding fields are involved in such use. Further, these are not engineering work products. Any opinions expressed are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of Stack Exchange, or other users. All users of the Site relinquish any or all claims against Stack Exchange, the party providing the Content, and any other users that may arise from reliance on any information obtained from the Site. Reliance on any information appearing on the Site is solely at your own risk.

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Disclaimers make us look like a bunch of weasel-wording lawyers, not engineers.

In reality, I expect it would be impossible to win a lawsuit based on some guy on the internet said it was OK, and now my house fell in, so it's his fault. Of course I'm not a lawyer, so getting the opinion of a real lawyer would be a good idea.

If we really do need to legally cover our butt (again, I suspect not), then I can live with a disclaimer. Otherwise, I hate how everybody puts disclaimers on everything nowadays, and would like this site not to add to the din.

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    $\begingroup$ Have a read of this answer over on meta Law.SE. I suspect it may change your thoughts on the matter. I agreed with the general stance you're laying out until I saw what SE had done for the Law site. $\endgroup$ – user16 Jan 28 '16 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ Olin, you're absolutely right: as Shog9 makes clear, the disclaimer is to provide comfort to answerers. And I don't see any sign that that's needed here - it's up to the OP of the question to show that it is. $\endgroup$ – 410 gone Feb 16 '16 at 1:53

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