Information Ethics and the Future


Library scientists have long identified potential ethical challenges. (Hauptman, 2002) is one established book that sets the broad scene for librarianship and ethics, but now dates back some fifteen years, during which the scene has, particularly recently, changed rapidly. The emergence of new issues is noted by many, e.g. (McMenemy, 2007) presciently argued that the traditional neutral role of the library, and librarian, would come under attack as partisan and unreliable information became more prevalent in the loosened controls of the internet age. One major question is which documents should be made available to the public, and what contextualization should be provided if material may offend or mislead.

Public data about people can be used for all sorts of benign reasons, such as collating the papers that they have published (McKay, Sanchez, & Parker, 2010). However, the same data, particularly if combined with other data sources, could be used to automatically assign other personal characteristics. If that data was wrongly assigned, were associated with contended subjects or identities, etc., risks to the person could emerge that were unintended. In the presence of initiatives such as Wales’ BioBank that aims to get 250,000 people to donate their health records as public documents, such risks are non-trivial. The typical member of the public may not discern the potential risks of participating in such an initiative, or even that carried with apparently trivial online content. As libraries move towards being keepers of both data and published documents, these issues become ever more pointed.

The vulnerabilities when data is made public can be acute, e.g. recent research has demonstrated that even two points of geo-location data can uniquely identify individuals (Riederer, Kim, Chaintreau, Korula, & Lattanzi, 2016). In this context, understanding how to explain risks to users, to obtain meaningful, informed consent can be problematic, but a cautious approach would lead to major implications for library services everywhere. Libraries themselves hold potentially revealing information about their readers’ choices of books, there whereabouts, or their use of online services.

The commercialization and invention of new emerging technologies, such as mobile devices, intelligent personal assistants, or interactive assistive applications are only expected to increase and diversify the ethical problems faced by information science researchers and practitioners (Gouvea, Linton, Montoya, & Walsh, 2012). Not only do new technologies evolve rapidly, but their contexts of use repeatedly adjust with use, and their target range of users (especially marginalized populations) are frequently and regularly redefined. Therefore, researchers ‘should be prepared for situational ethical dilemmas and be supported in developing a range of tactics and sensitivities to respond to them in the field’ (Vines et al., 2017) (p.2).

Information ethics, while particularly associated with library and information sciences, is not solely the property of our fields. (Sturges, 2009). Journalism, computer science, information systems and other areas all have knowledge and insights to contribute to the many debates that are needed today (Sturges, 2009).


Gouvea, R., Linton, J. D., Montoya, M., & Walsh, S. T. (2012). Emerging Technologies and Ethics: A Race-to-the-Bottom or the Top? Journal of Business Ethics, 109(4), 553-567. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1430-3

Hauptman, R. (2002). Ethics and librarianship: McFarland.

McKay, D., Sanchez, S., & Parker, R. (2010). What's my name again?: sociotechnical considerations for author name management in research databases. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 22nd Conference of the Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group of Australia on Computer-Human Interaction, Brisbane, Australia.

McMenemy, D. (2007). Librarians and ethical neutrality: revisiting The Creed of a Librarian. Library Review, 56(3), 177-181. doi:doi:10.1108/00242530710735948

Riederer, C., Kim, Y., Chaintreau, A., Korula, N., & Lattanzi, S. (2016). Linking Users Across Domains with Location Data: Theory and Validation. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on World Wide Web, Montréal, Québec, Canada.

Sturges, P. (2009). Information ethics in the twenty first century. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 40(4), 241-251.

Vines, J., McNaney, R., Holden, A., Poliakov, I., Wright, P., & Olivier, P. (2017). Our Year With the Glass: Expectations, Letdowns and Ethical Dilemmas of Technology Trials With Vulnerable People. Interacting with Computers, 29(1), 27-44. doi:10.1093/iwc/iww017