8 Chapter 8: The Making of a Profession: Values, Ethics, and Conducts

8.1 Introduction

What is a profession? A profession comprises a group of people governed by a code of ethics and a code of conduct. A profession is characterized by traits of a discipline with a body of knowledge, literature, culture, norms, and practices. Among these traits, the “code of ethics” is one of the most important characteristics that can differentiate a profession from other professions, because the “code of ethics” expresses the core values of a professional that they advocate or believe in.

Defining a “profession” is helpful for us to understand that the term “professionals” refers to the practicing group within a certain profession and their ethical behavior within the professional community is referred to as “professionalism.” “Professionalism” describes professionals who respect values as defined in the code of ethics and take actions as specified in the code of conduct. Thus, “being a professional” means understanding not only professional skills or techniques but also “agreed moral and behavior standards” in a profession. Therefore, the “code of ethics” is the hallmark of a profession because the “code of ethics” can establish guidelines to support professionals in making sound decisions when they confront complex situations (e.g., ethical dilemmas). Shaffer (1968) stated that a major characteristic of professionalism is to encourage continuous professional growth. Overall, a professional code of ethics formalizes the standards and the scope of ethical decision-making and behaviors (Koehler and Pemberton, 2000).

Every profession has a list of professional associations affiliated with it. Professional associations participate in the development of the profession by establishing the code of ethics, code of conduct, standards, accreditations, and training. They organize seminars and conferences, and, in some cases, they offer certification courses. Each profession has its own unique culture and education system. Professional schools act as incubators, training centers, or specialized institutes to nurture and develop paraprofessionals for the next stage of their careers.

8.2 Professional Values and Information Ethics

Professional values are guidelines that allow professionals to understand what is right and wrong, forming the foundation of professional ethics. Ethics usually refers to a set of values shaped by many factors, such as culture, age, gender, religion, racial background, etc. Some fundamental ethical values include justice, honesty, empathy, compassion, and respect.

In information institutions, some examples of core values of “information professionals” include intellectual freedom, equity of access, free access to information for individuals, privacy for individual users and user records, professional neutrality, fair use of copyrighted materials, social responsibility, diversity, and preservation of cultural records.

Professional values are manifested in professional ethics which prescribe a series of conduct in a professional community. The “code of ethics” provides guidelines for information professionals to make sound and ethical decisions when they encounter a complicated situation in their workplaces. For example, the American Library Association (ALA) is the earliest and most influential professional organization for librarianship that was founded in the nineteenth century. ALA not only established the core values of librarianship but also set up ethical behavior guidelines in the ALA Bill of Rights and ALA Code of Ethics. According to the ALA Council (2019), after numerous revisions of policy statements, the core values of this organization include access, confidentiality/privacy, democracy, diversity, education, lifelong learning, intellectual freedom, preservation, the public good, professionalism, service, social responsibility, and sustainability. Overall, each professional association develops a set of core values that best serve the needs of its professionals.

The term “information ethics” (IE) originated from “librarianship ethics” and was mainly adopted by librarians who are one type of information professional. Information ethics have also been widely adopted and used in the community of computing professionals. The term “information ethics” was first coined by Robert Hauptman in his book Ethical Challenges in Librarianship and he later initiated the Journal of Information Ethics in 1992. In his work (Hauptman,1988), some frequently occurring challenging problems of librarianship are addressed which include censorship, privacy, access to information, balance in collection development, copyright, fair use, problem patrons, etc. After more than 30 years’ development, information ethics has become a dynamic and evolving domain in LIS, and this phrase has been embraced in other disciplines, such as computer science, journalism, and other business domains. Magi and Garnar (2015) defined “information ethics” as the field of “addressing the uses and abuses of information, information technology, and information systems for personal, professional, and public decision-making” (p. 366).

8.3 Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct

“Code of ethics” and “code of conduct” are two different concepts that sometimes might be confused. A code of ethics is a set of value principles designed to regulate organizational members during their decision-making process and the process of carrying out services. Code of ethics guides an organizational member to do business honestly and fairly with high moral standards. The code of conduct outlines specific requirements of behaviors that are expected by an organization based on the organization’s mission, values, and principles. Thus, a code of ethics is intentionally generic and broad aiming to guide organizational members to establish a healthy value system in their mind, while the code of conduct lays out more specific expectations on organizational members’ actions and behaviors.

Examples of the codes of ethics include ALA (American Library Association), ASIS&T (Association for Information Science and Technology), ALISE (Association for Information Science Education), and so on. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the values to which the organizational members are committed. It embodies the ethical responsibilities of information professionals. As stated by ALA, the principles of the Code of Ethics are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision-making. The statements provide a framework that guides conduct to cover various situations.

Table 8.1 shows the ALA Code of Ethics statements.

Table 8.1 ALA Code of Ethics (ALA, 2021)

  • We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
  • We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  • We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
  • We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
  • We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.
  • We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
  • We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
  • We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.
  • We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequity and oppression; to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of resources and spaces.

The ASIS&T Professional Guidelines/Code of Ethics is expressed in terms of member responsibilities to employers, the profession, and the association. The members’ responsibility to the profession is expressed in a broad statement as listed in Table 8.2.

Table 8.2: ASIS&T Professional Guidelines/Code (ASIS&T, 1992)

ASIS&T members have obligations to employers, clients, and system users, to the profession, and to society, to use judgment and discretion in making choices, providing equitable service, and in defending the rights of open inquiry.

Responsibilities to Employers/Clients/System Users
  • To act faithfully for their employers or clients in professional matters.
  • To uphold each user’s, provider’s, or employer’s right to privacy and confidentiality and to respect whatever proprietary rights belong to them, by limiting access to, providing proper security for and ensuring proper disposal of data about clients, patrons or users.
  • To treat all people fairly.
Responsibility to the Profession

To truthfully represent themselves and the information systems which they utilize or which they represent, by:

  • not knowingly making false statements or providing erroneous or misleading information
  • informing their employers, clients or sponsors of any circumstances that create a conflict of interest
  • not using their position beyond their authorized limits or by not using their credentials to misrepresent themselves
  • following and promoting standards of conduct in accord with the best current practices
  • undertaking their research conscientiously, in gathering, tabulating or interpreting data; in following proper approval procedures for subjects; and in producing or disseminating their research results
  • pursuing ongoing professional development and encouraging and assisting colleagues and others to do the same
  • adhering to principles of due process and equality of opportunity.
Responsibility to Association
  • To improve the information systems with which they work or which they represent, to the best of their means and abilities by providing the most reliable and accurate information and acknowledging the credibility of the sources as known or unknown.
  • To resist all forms of censorship, inappropriate selection and acquisitions policies, and biases in information selection, provision and dissemination.
  • To make known any biases, errors and inaccuracies found to exist and striving to correct those which can be remedied.
  • To promote open and equal access to information, within the scope permitted by their organizations or work, and to resist procedures that promote unlawful discriminatory practices in access to and provision of information, by seeking to extend public awareness and appreciation of information availability and provision as well as the role of information professionals in providing such information.
  • To [promote] freely reporting, publishing or disseminating information subject to legal and proprietary restraints of producers, vendors and employers, and the best interests of their employers or clients.

The two examples demonstrate the broader guidelines from two different information professional associations. The ALA Code of Ethics reflects a more traditional value system of the library profession, whereas ASIS&T’s represents the evolving information science profession that is significantly impacted by technology. Based on ALA’s Code of Ethics, we can see that librarianship is a profession that embraces the inclusive creeds of helping all of those individuals who enter the library and of providing materials that reflect the diverse range of perspectives, groups, and societies. The overall standpoint of libraries in the United States strives to achieve diversity through all sorts of channels: LIS school admission, hiring, collection development, services, and programs (Balderrama, 2000). In addition, ALA actively promotes equal access to information for all people through libraries and encourages the development of library services for diverse populations. ALA envisions that a diverse workforce may provide a high-level service to the community where respect, appreciation, equity, and inclusion are the core values.

As for an example of a typical code of conduct, the “HoN Code of Conduct” created by the “Health on the Net Foundation” is a good case. The HON Foundation is a nongovernmental organization, internationally known for its pioneering work in the field of health information ethics. HONcode is set up as a set of principles to guide the development of health information on websites and requires these websites to strive to provide the reliability and credibility of the information. Overall, there are eight (8) principles in the HoN Code of Conduct as shown in Table 8.3.

Table 8.3 HoN Code of Conduct (Health on the Net, 2019)

Principle 1: Authority

  • Give qualifications of authors

Principle 2: Complementarity

  • Information to support, not replace

Principle 3: Confidentiality

  • Respect the privacy of site users

Principle 4: Attribution

  • Cite the sources and dates of medical information

Principle 5: Justifiability

  • Justification of claims/balanced and objective claims

Principle 6: Transparency

  • Accessibility, provide valid contact details

Principle 7: Financial disclosure

  • Provide details of funding

Principle 8: Advertising

  • Clearly distinguish advertising from editorial content.

Developers of health websites can display the HONcode logo if they adhere to all eight principles. For example, WebMD.com is a website certified by the HoN Foundation.

A “code of conduct” sets up guidelines to ensure the code of ethics can be carried out in the real world. They are usually designed to prescribe specific behaviors that are expected in the code of ethics. The “code of conduct” provides specific principles for action items. Professional ethics formally published guidelines on how a person should act toward other peers, patrons, and their own institutions in the professional world. Therefore, the relationship between “code of ethics” and “code of conduct” can be considered this way—a code of ethics, in general, is a system of moral principles concerned with the rules that prescribe people’s behavior (Wilkinson, 2014). Meanwhile, the “code of conduct” applies and enforces the guidelines of the code of ethics during everyday practices.

8.3.1 Functions of the Code of Ethics

A “code of ethics” refers to well-based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what individuals ought to do with regard to their rights, obligations, benefits to society, or specific virtues (Velasquez et al., 1987). Anderson et al. (1993) stated that a code of ethics is a mechanism to allow professional association members to be self-regulating. By applying a code of ethics, professionals may see the possible violations of these standards in a workplace, community, or information society. A second function of the code is to allow professionals to form their consensus and commitment. Anderson et al. (1993) addressed that some codes in the ACM code of ethics were ideal, but they reflected the important values to a professional community. They also inferred that the recent code of ethics emphasizes more socialization and education rather than enforced compliance. Therefore, the “code of ethics” demonstrates the “core values” and “identity” of the profession. Thirdly, the “code of ethics” helps a profession set up their public image and ensure that professionals are accountable to the public and that the service they provide confers benefits to the public (Anderson et al., 1993). The last and most important function of the “code of ethics” is to facilitate an individual professional’s decision-making process (Anderson et al., 1993).

There are more than 60 codes of ethics for librarians that have been collected by IFLA (IFLA, 2012; Hansson, 2016). Among them all, IFLA provided both the full version and the short version of the code for various references and users. Since librarians all over the world are often facing similar kinds of ethical challenges, IFLA developed an international level code of ethics in 2012. The American Library Association (ALA) was the earliest and most influential professional association that developed a code of ethics in 1939.

There are some general codes of professional ethics, such as those from the ALA (2021), the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) (2012), or the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) (2012) which are meant to provide generic guiding principles covering all librarians. Although individual codes vary across cultures and nations, in a study of codes of professional ethics adopted by international associations of librarians from 28 countries, Shachaf (2005) identified the seven (7) most frequent ethical values for librarians, appearing in more than half of all library codes, as follows:

  • a commitment to professional development
  • a commitment to integrity
  • upholding confidentiality and privacy
  • the provision of free and equal access to information
  • the avoidance of conflicts of interest and personal gain
  • responsibilities toward the profession
  • responsibilities toward colleagues (p. 9).

Significant knowledge of these core ethical values of being an information professional has a significant impact on our decision-making and actions in the professional world. It supports information professionals in making consistent and well-rounded decisions. We need to understand that ethical codes do not mean providing specific solutions or answers for those complex issues and situations. Instead, ethical codes are intentionally set up with generic and abstract principles that can be applied and accommodated to various scenarios and settings. Therefore, we should continuously implement these ethical principles in the real world and developing solutions for ethical dilemmas on a case-by-case principle. For example, some ASIS&T and ACM codes do not specifically mention what an individual must do in a situation, but they state some decisions are unacceptable. One item in the ASIS&T code stated “not knowingly making false statements or providing erroneous or misleading information.”

In this chapter, we purposefully selected three “code of ethics” or “professional guidelines” from three LIS areas’ for comparison: archiving, library science, and information science. By comparing the similarities and differences of adopted ethical standards for different information professional subcommunities, we may identify the cultural characteristics of each professional community. These three selected sets of “code of ethics” include:

Appendix A shows a comparison of the “code of ethics” across three professional organizations based on seven (7) generic core values of information science (Shachaf, 2005). Through this comparison, we found that “supporting professional development,” “expanding free and equal access to information,” and “diversity” are the core values shared by these three professional organizations. However, “information preservation” which is a traditional value of information organizations was not addressed in any of these three professional organizations.

8.3.2 Ethical Dilemmas

Among codes of ethics, there are contradictions among items within the codes of ethics. The contradiction could exist within a value system or with another value system. “Ethical dilemmas” are those situations in which conflicting obligations take place based on different value systems. Most often, it describes the right-versus-right situations. That is, ethical dilemmas appear when a conflict between principles occurs in a code of ethics or in an individual’s value systems (e.g., personal value, professional value, workplace value). For example, as an information professional, it is right to support the security officer’s order, but it is also right to honor the patron’s privacy and the confidentiality which is required in ALA professional codes (Seidelin and Hamilton, 2005). An ethical dilemma is a challenging situation because an individual must violate one or another set of ethical codes. When professionals encounter an ethical dilemma situation, they often feel uncomfortable or stressed with making sound decisions (Jones, 2014). One of the reasons behind ethical dilemmas includes there is no established hierarchy of values or continuum of values (Symons and Stoffle, 1998). For those kinds of situations, individuals must conduct a careful analysis of the details of a situation, evaluate the harms and benefits, consider reasons for the dilemma, and then make personal decisions about which principle takes precedence over another.

8.3.3 Ethical Dilemmas in the Technology Era

Ethical dilemmas have been on the rise in the past decade with the evolution of technology. McMahon and Cohen (2009) discussed how new ethical dilemmas occurred due to people’s new information behavior, such as downloading, sharing, and installing of applications, and that these behaviors are interwoven with intellectual property rights, privacy, free speech, cybersecurity, etc. This is because how people interact with information, individuals, and their information environment has become increasingly complicated in this age of digital services. Librarians who deal with ethical issues regarding digital services must evaluate the factors involved differently than an ethical issue that arises regarding traditional services (Ferguson et al., 2016).

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is a US-based international organization on computing. ACM was founded in 1947 and it has become the world’s largest research and educational computing society with a membership base of 100,000 paraprofessionals and professionals as of 2019 (ACM, n.d.). In 1972, ACM first developed a code of ethics for its members, computing professionals. In 1993, this code of ethics was revised by taking into consideration technological developments. There are four categories of themes emerging from the ACM code: (1) general moral imperatives, (2) specific professional responsibilities, (3) organizational leadership imperatives, and (4) compliance (Anderson et al., 1993). O’Boyle (2002) applied the ACM code to nine cases and found that certain practices are morally required and professionally unacceptable. Thus, Anderson et al. (1993) suggested that computing professionals must balance their responsibilities to employers, to clients, and their professional communities. They also suggested that ethical decisions could be facilitated or constrained by the workplace of a professional when they implement their decisions because ethical decisions rely on institutional culture and contexts. Therefore, they call for leadership in the workplace to create a safe environment to allow professionals to express their ethical concerns.

Ethical issues are important in the information professions, as in other professions (e.g., medical, engineering professionals). Ethics standards are central to any profession because they provide a framework of expected behaviors. The American Library Association has had a code of ethics since 1939, but the Medical Library Association (MLA) code is young, having first been adopted in 1994 and revised in 2010 (Jones, 2014). According to Luo (2014), library professionals resolve dilemmas in the following ways: (1) 58% consult colleagues for guidance, (2) 26.9% used institutional ethics policies, (3) 25.9% use ALA Code of Ethics, or (4) 14.2% use published literature (pp. 178–179). In addition to knowing the challenges to seeking advice or guidelines on solving ethical problems, it is also necessary to carefully examine some models for dealing with ethical dilemmas since these models propose various procedures and dimensions of a problem-solving process.

8.4 Models for Dealing with “Ethical Dilemmas”

There were a set of models for ethical decision-making that have been created in the area of applied ethics. Severson (1997) offers a highly effective, teachable four-step method of principled ethics which includes: (1) getting the facts straight, (2) identifying the moral dilemma, (3) evaluating the moral dilemma using the principles of information ethics to decide which side has the most ethical support, and (4) testing your solution: will it stand up to public scrutiny? (p. 17).

In Koehler and Pemberton’s (2000) model, ethical information practice is a decision-making process in which no absolute correct solutions exist. Koehler and Pemberton (2000) assumed that information professionals may choose an ethically “correct” balance among several priorities whenever an ethical decision must be made. Froehlich (2004) suggested five general principles that can guide ethical action in all kinds of international research contexts: (1) respect for the self and others, (2) seek to minimize harm, (3) seek justice or fairness, (4) promote “social harmony,” and (5) be faithful to organizational public and professional trust (pp. 463–465). In addition, Ralph B. Potter in 1965, developed the “Potter Box” model for making ethical decisions. The Potter Box involves four factors: the situation of a problem, the values involved, the relevant principles, and their prioritization (Jones, 2014). Jones (2014) found that two different individuals can apply this model to an ethical dilemma and come to different decisions. The nature of true ethical dilemmas is that there are no absolute right or wrong solutions to solve a problem but people have to choose between two good principles when they are involved into such kind of situations. The value of using a model is not to find a “right” or “true” answer/solution, but that it provides an organized way of analyzing a situation to decide according to ethical principles. Thus, ethical decision models serve as instruments to provide a consistent procedure when information professionals confront an ethical problem.

Sileo and Kopala (1993) proposed using an “A-B-C-D-E worksheet” for handling dilemmas. Five key elements are involved in this ethical decision-making model: Assessment, Benefit, Consequences and Consultation, Duty, and Education. This model helps analyze an ethical dilemma and assists in identifying a suitable resolution.

There are other models that exist in previous publications. We encourage you to explore the literature and find the one that works best for you and your organization. Solving ethical issues is a challenging problem-solving process. Therefore, information professionals should be creative and analytical in order to identify the most suitable solutions. Walther (2016) pointed out that the process of solving ethical issues is not always a linear manner. Most often, ethical situations exist in a nonlinear way. Thus, it is helpful to adopt the suggested steps or procedures to carry out ethical decisions, but we should also be prepared that the analysis and solutions might not be the best ones and iterative rounds of thinking and actions may need to be involved in a difficult ethical situation.

Whitbeck (1992) suggested that information professionals should try to provide more alternative solutions when encountering an ethical problem. Also, she suggested that information professionals should use case study methods to keep practicing how to use various models to come up with appropriate solutions. In this way, information professionals will be well prepared and equipped when they handle real-life situations.

8.5 Conclusion

A “code of ethics” communicates a set of professional values worldwide. Ethical decision-making is an essential skill for training information professionals nowadays. In this chapter, we aim to explain the process of identifying an ethical issue, reflecting on it with careful analysis, and deciding on solving this issue ethically. This chapter will help information professionals to master the art and science of dealing with ethical dilemmas that they frequently encounter in various professional environments and on a variety of occasions. As an information professional, we should not only know how to deal with these complex ethical problems but also frequently reflect on the root reasons of these problems.

Case Study:

A large suburban public library has allocated significantly more funding to purchasing audio books which is a trending service in most public libraries. However, reference librarians found that some patrons use their library account to access Libby platform and check out digital audiobooks. They then use converter software to download the item onto their personal devices which allows them to permanently keep the audiobooks without using the Libby platform and formal checkout methods.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between a code of ethics and a code of conduct?
  • Does your organization have a code of conduct? If yes, describe how it works.
  • What is the relationship between “professionalism” and “ethical values”?
  • Discuss the origin and evolution of “information ethics.”
  • What is an “ethical dilemma”? Provide one example of an “ethical dilemma.”
  • Why is it important for professional associations to have codes of ethics?
  • Discuss ethical and moral principles that govern how technologies should be used.
  • Choose two models of dealing with “ethical dilemmas” from this chapter and use them to analyze the case study in this chapter. Do you come up with the same decisions and solutions?


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