2 Nov 2012

If the management literature tells us one thing, it’s that some business failures, particularly in the wake of the international financial melt-down, have been due in part to lack of ethical decision making and awareness.

Guest post by Stuart Ferguson, Assistant Professor, Knowledge & Information Studies, University of Canberra

I recently returned to Canberra from a study tour of Ireland and Britain, which was part of a project designed to investigate changes in the field of information ethics and the ways in which ethics is taught to information students and novices within the sector. The starting point for the study was library ethics – indeed, one of the main outcomes is expected to be a set of case studies designed to highlight aspects of the Australian Library and Information Association’s statements on values and ethics - but the intention was to expand the study to include the broader field of information ethics and policy, related collecting institutions (e.g. digital libraries, e-repositories and digital archives) and the impact that digitisation and enhanced electronic access have on our information policies and ethical decision-making.

The study tour included conversations with a wide range of information practitioners, academics, professional associations and PhD students and covered the fields of libraries, archives, public records, digital collections, institutional repositories, Freedom of Information (FOI), digital humanities and applied ethics. One of the advantages of interviews over, say, requests to e-lists or surveys is that many interviewees start out believing that they have nothing to tell but in the course of the conversation come up with interesting observations.

These conversations have been a rich source of scenarios for the study, for example: whether professional associations should sanction volunteers staffing core library services if the only alternative is library closure; misuse of web images that are part of personal archives donated for academic use; external funding and donations from dubious political sources; access to material such as emails that refer to third parties; use of internet filters, even on staff PCs; FOI requests to access staff personnel files; pressure from public authorities to put reports on the public record without the material that went into the investigation; police requests for libraries to take bomb-making books off the shelves; agencies trying to join chatrooms, with potential to recruit members.

Professional codes of ethics are often not particularly helpful. These generally fall into at least one of three categories: aspirational/inspirational, regulatory/prescriptive and educational. The first address values and principles; the second contain rules that provide ‘solutions to ethical dilemmas’; while the educational category may include the first two elements but ‘also provide explanations and examples’ (Shachaf, 2005, p.515). Many, including the LAI code (before it disappeared for review) and the ALIA one, are largely inspirational and don’t provide solutions.

The trouble with a prescriptive code is that, even if we were happy to have a detailed set of rules to follow uncritically, we would have problems designing rules in sufficient detail to cover the complex problems we face. What do we do when our principles or our obligations clash? As Robert Hauptman put it, in conversation with Elizabeth Buchanan, ‘we do have extremely complex problems, problems that become dilemmas because they’re basically insoluble’ (Buchanan, 2008, p.254).

Case studies are often employed, particularly in codes designed to be educational, precisely because they can capture that complexity and to some degree the ‘insoluble’ nature of some of our ethical dilemmas. Some professional associations have developed case studies to assist their members, such as the Society of American Archivists and the Australian Computer Society and for the present CILIP in the UK provides links to sets of relevant case studies.

Of course case studies are not enough in themselves because we need some kind of framework with which to analyse each case – hence  the tendency over the years to draw on various philosophical perspectives, most notably the consequentialist approach (what would be the impact of our decision?) and the deontological one (what is the right thing to do?). Again, none of these approaches in itself provides an answer, only a means of analysis and of sharpening our critical reasoning.

Underlying all this of course is the nagging question ‘Do ethics matter?’. In the information sector, our decisions may not have the same impact as those in the upper reaches of business and finance, but we have seen concerns over privacy, for instance, increasing. Jean Preer (2008, p.15) sees  codes of ethics as significant statements of professional identity. My study so far suggests strong links between ethics and information policy and, while I have to acknowledge the impact of self-selection among participants, my conversations have encountered passionate concern over ethical issues far more often than indifference.

If you have stories or ideas that you think might be useful, please post here or, if you prefer not to use an open forum, email me directly (stuart.ferguson at canberra.edu.au). All stories/case studies collected for the research will be de-identified before being published in any way. I’ve gone through rigorous ethics processes!

Buchanan, E, 2008. On theory, practice, and responsibilities: A conversation with Robert Hauptman. Library & Information Science Research, 30/4, 250-256.
Preer, J, 2008. Library ethics. 1st ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Shachaf, P, 2005. A global perspective on library association codes of ethics. Library & Information Science Research, [Online]. 27/4, 513-533. Available at: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.canberra.edu.au/10.1016/j.lisr.2005.08.008 [Accessed 22 October 2012].

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a really excellent post Stuart. I must admit (for shame!) that I have never really paid too much attention to any of the existing professional codes, except when I have been faced with a particular dilemma or problem and am seeking guidance. Most that I have come across do tend to be of the aspirational nature as you suggest, which are of limited value if seeking a specific (or even 'insoluble'!) solution.

    I think what is particularly interesting is that the range of potential ethical dilemmas appears to be increasing - the examples you have listed above cover quite disparate areas. I am sure a few years ago the issue of libraries using volunteers to staff core services would have been far less pervasive than the common dilemma it is today for instance. No doubt in the future 'new' problems will continue to emerge which require us to look at how we formally appraise and respond to situations from an ethical perspective as a profession.