The Ethical Conflicts Engendered by the increasing prevalence of e-books and e-journals in the academic world

***This essay was written by CityLIS student Stephanie Mcmullan in January 2019. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

According to the International Federation of Library Associates (IFLA) “librarianship is, in its very essence, an ethical activity” (IFLA) Yet in the changing landscape of new digital technologies the ethical views that librarians have held and protected for decades are being tested. This essay aims to specifically explore how the use, retrieval and management of e-books and e-journals is challenging values in the academic library and information world. To do so this essay will first show how e-books and e-journals have grown in popularity in recent years and their significance to the academic community. This essay will then question if the access that electronic publishing provides is fair and equal for the diverse variety of individuals in academia by considering functionality and the Open Access (OA) movement. However, e-books and e-journals cannot be viewed in a vacuum. How researchers find resources has also changed and users are likely to use both online library catalogues and a variety of search engines to find information. This essay will consider the problems of relying on search engines for access to electronic academic writing due to their opaque, commercialised nature and whether the transformation of library catalogues to mimic their Web 2.0 counterparts compromises the ethical dedication to intellectual freedom. Lastly, privacy and the protection of personal data have increasingly been in the spotlight in recent times. As electronic resources, books and journals have lost their anonymity and the data they provide for universities and hosting platforms has grown in value. I hope to show how libraries and universities use the information generated by e-books and e-journals and how legislation like GDPR interacts with libraries ethical standards. In doing this this essay will show some of the ethical dilemmas that LIS professionals will have to overcome in offering a 21st Century service.

E-books and e-journals are becoming more prevalent in academic life. In 2009 the JISC national e-books observatory project undertook research to explore how e-books were being used in universities and colleges across the UK. The report examined 120 universities and 52,000 academics and students and found that 65% of teaching staff and students had used an e-book to support their work, study or leisure purposes- concluding e-books are now part of mainstream education (JISC 5). For journals, the first e-journal, ‘New Horizons in Adult Education’, was published in 1987 and since then the trend for scholarly online journals has increased exponentially. In 2000 the Association of Research Libraries’ Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion listed the number of e-journals as 3,500 (Kim, Durr and Hawamdeh 131) and today on one journal platform, JSTOR, 12 million articles are available on 2,600 journals (JSTOR).

Clearly, e-literature is a growing repository of accessible, online academic information that helps libraries to offer an extensive collection of academic material that would be difficult to supply in hardcopy; but the benefits of digital literature stretch far beyond offering a “safety valve” for high demand hardcopy material (JISC 5). The right to “Seek, receive and impart information and ideas in any media and regardless of frontiers” has been inscribed by Article 19 in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (IFLA). The ability to access information and form ideas independently is emphatically linked to democracy and as information custodians LIS professionals in all sectors strive to “champion the rights of access for our users” (Losinski). The LIS community upholds information access as their “core mission” (IFLA) and establish this in their codes of ethics, for example the IFLA and CILIP Ethics Review. Now the introduction of e-books and journals has made this mission more accomplishable for typically disenfranchised people in education. For example, as an institution based solely on distance learning the Open University offers flexibility of study for the majority of its students which are often “in full time employment or …juggling family commitments” (Grace and Needham 16). Whereas previously it had been a challenge to offer “a library experience which is at least equivalent to that of a conventional university” the advent of e-books and e-journals has meant that students that cannot commit to full time study now have the option to access relevant academic material and pursue careers previously unreachable to them. Furthermore, “e-books have the potential to meet a wide variety of accessibility needs” (McNaught and Alexander 35).

The functions of changing text size and colour, text-to-speech support and text description of images has been opened up by technology and can transform access for differently abled users. Therefore by improving the resources available to those typically outside the mainstream, by digitising collections and purchasing e-literature, libraries can “[support] democracy by providing access to information in the broadest possible context” (Losinski). However, some argue that “tech savviness can be an accessibility hurdle” (Yelton) and that some platforms are “barely serviceable” (JISC 6). According to research for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development “low income is the single most important factor for non-access to a computer and to the internet” and those aged 65-74 are four times more likely to have never used a computer (Montagnier and Wirthmann 4). By increasing the amount of materials only accessible via the internet libraries may be further marginalising those on the fringe of society.

The advent of digital books and journals has also enabled the sharing of research through the Open Access (OA) movement. “Open access means peer-reviewed academic work that is free to read online and that anybody can distribute and reuse, with some restrictions” (Eve 1). Whereas “[o]pen access was not truly feasible in times before [internet] technology” (Eve 2), due to the costs of publishing and distributing hardcopy material, hosting research in journals online has removed the majority of these costs and databases such as the Directory of Open Access Journals now have 10,000 journals in their collection and worldwide there are 25,000 Open Access Peer reviewed journals (Harnad). In 2012 the Finch Report recommended OA should be adopted by all UK Higher Education and Research councils with two standard routes to enable this- Gold OA and Green OA. The government adopted these recommendations and dedicated to expanding OA research in the public sector (“Open Access Research”). Proponents of the OA movement argue that if “access to important arguments is limited public reason is…impoverished” (Parker 2). OA benefits authors and researchers by making research available so that the academic community can increase the speed of research by increasing their knowledge of projects, preventing duplication of effort and encouraging transparency in the research community. However, Open Access is controversial. The government recommends the Gold OA standard of publication which functions as institutions or authors, through author processing charges, pay academic journals to host their papers. This model potentially discriminates against poorer institutions and independent researchers who cannot afford to pay the publication fees demanded, “limiting the freedom of open access to be truly innovative and open” (Parker 3). Therefore, moving to Gold OA potentially entrenches inequality of access, blocking poorer researchers from publishing through paywalls instead of from reading academic material. As we can see e-books and e-journals have the potential to address issues of democracy and intellectual freedom but there are still hurdles to be overcome which librarians must contend with.

Search engines, library catalogues and the ethics of searching

Whether published through OA or through traditional means students and academics still need to find the e-books and e-journals they need to use and more and more often users are turning to search engines to do this. Bawden and Brophy argue that “web search engines…have created a generation of searchers who are choosing the simplicity of the search engines on the open free web over the perceived complexity of library catalogues” (Bawden and Brophy 499). This argument can be supported by Zipf’s principle of least effort (Cancho and Sole 789) and the research of Simon who argued that when searching humans take the first acceptable option even if it is not the optimum, they “satisfice” (Agosto, 17). Therefore for searchers the intuitive nature of search engines, their accessibility and coverage means that when looking for material ‘Googling’ seems like the best option.
In order to retrieve relevant information search engines must do two things; firstly, they index webpages and other media on the internet and, secondly, when a search is made via the search engine interface they use algorithms to rank results to bring back the most relevant material for the searcher. For relevance ranking search engines usually use the position and frequency of key words, the popularity of a page and the amount of times a page has been linked to by other pages as part of their ranking criteria. However, with competition between search engines and attempts by developers to boost pages to the top of a results page algorithms are closely guarded and frequently changed (Introna and Nissenbaum 174). Users generally tend to trust the results brought back by search engines (Pan et al. 811) but is this wise? The neutrality thesis states that technology is neutral and only good or bad as used by humans but this essay would argue that “technological artefacts are not morally neutral but value laden” (Brey 43). While search engine algorithms may behave autonomously they have been shaped by the society around them and in turn shape that society, promoting or demoting different values (Brey 43). Halavais (122-123) gives the example of the word ‘Jew’ being put into Google in 2004 and bringing back anti-Semitic pages; the algorithm had adapted to the popularity of these pages and anti-Semitic values had become embedded in the technology. In addition to this, LIS professions must keep in mind the commercial aspect of search engines. It is possible to buy rankings on search engines like Google and Yahoo! and even buy words- Amazon had a deal with Yahoo! where if the word ‘book’ is included in a search an Amazon result will appear in the first page (Introna and Nissenbaum 175). With the trust that users have in the first results and only 5% of people clicking through to the second page (Chitika Online Advertising Network) these functions can clearly influence users. The lack of transparency around these practices has lead Introna and Nissenbaum to argue that “the conditions needed for a marketplace to function in a democratic and efficient way are simply not met in the case of search engines” (Introna and Nissenbaum 176).

Yet, the JISC study found that “More than half of users said that the last e-book they used was provided courtesy of their university library” (JISC 5). While individuals may favour search engines library catalogues offer superior results in comparison to Google (Bawden and Brophy 498). The abundance of low quality information that Google searching brings back can be described as ‘infobesity’ – “a junk information diet consisting of overwhelming amounts of low quality material that is hard to digest and leads to research of low quality” (Bell B15). Bell argues that library catalogues and specialised databases can combat this poor diet by offering ‘nutritious information’ (Bell B15). However, in order to appeal to users and sift through vast amounts of material “search engine technology is becoming widely adopted in library catalogues” (Kinstler 33). Like search engines, library catalogues are likely to use factors like keyword weighting, popularity, citations and material availability to rate results and other features to make catalogues similar to search engines (Kinstler 29-32). And in 2011 11% of UK Universities offered recommender systems as part of their catalogue, a function that attempts to match users with material they believe would help them based on what they have looked at, and that number has likely increased in the interim years (Wakeling et al. 134). Yet, people prefer there to be a differentiation between catalogues and search engines and value a neutral space to discover knowledge. When presented with the option for recommendations and interaction with the catalogue “both students and faculty members made a strong case for the neutrality of the catalogue, accepting only descriptive and non-judgmental information like [content] tables” (Christensen 6). The unknown factors of ranking and the lack of transparency was possibly playing on the minds of users and they knew themselves the risks of narrowing discovery. It would seem that in the balance between facilitating users and retrieving information e-books and journals are causing searching to become encumbered by politics so that we risk impeding the intellectual freedom of academic research.

Data Protection and Privacy

In the past print material was largely anonymous. When libraries bought a hardcopy book or journal it belonged in perpetuity to the library and it could be perused, annotated and examined with little scrutiny. “[P]ublishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader [sat] down with a book”, “with a printed book, there’s no such thing as an analytic. You can’t tell which pages are dog-eared” (Alter). LIS ethics strongly support the protection of personal data and the IFLA Code of ethic states “librarians and other information workers respect personal privacy, and the protection of personal data, necessarily shared between individuals and institutions” (IFLA). However, with digital books and journals anonymity is no longer as easily guaranteed. In order to acquire the access that their users require university libraries can no longer buy outright the right to online content – instead they agree to licenses and pay outside platforms for access to the knowledge that they host. As users are directed outside of the library and the library catalogue they agree to cookies that record browsing history or sometimes need to sign up with email addresses and details of their institution. This structuring of access brings commercial vendors into the tradition transaction between librarian and patron and as Caldwell Stone points out “commercial vendors…frequently do not share librarian’s commitment to…intellectual freedom, privacy and access” (Caldwell-Stone). Data gathered by online vendors can used to target individuals in advertising campaigns, to sell on to third parties (“Can I stop companies from using my data?”) or if not handled properly data can be hacked and stolen. Institutions are aware of these consequences of sharing users’ data; for example, City, University of London Library has a page online that warns “When using our online resources we strongly advise you to read a company’s privacy policy before entering any personal data” (City University of London). And it is not just outside corporations that academic LIS workers have to worry about, student information is also a valuable commodity to Universities. According to Chris Jutting in The Guardian learning analytics are an emerging trend in education. Universities track students’ unique data and use it to predict whether users will perform well academically or perhaps drop out (Jutting). Indeed information such as “use of online learning tools, reading lists and coursework submission” can even be used to infer any emotional or mental issues pupils might be dealing with or at least that is what the University of West England is using the data for (Baker). These developments present a significant endangering of public data which is fundamentally against the values of library and information sciences and Yelton argues that access to information shouldn’t be the overriding priority for librarians when faced with the dangers to privacy that online resources engender.

However, Yelton references the American context of e-book use. In Europe the legal landscape has been adapting recently to take into account these new risks to our personal information. In May 2018 the European Union brought into force the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which was incorporated into the UK Data Protection Act. GDPR aims to prioritise individual’s rights by increasing the transparency of what companies do with our information, giving people the ‘right to be forgotten’ and increasing the penalty for compliance abuse to 10 million euros or two percent of a company’s turnover (Information Commissioner’s Office). However, even if companies are compliant this doesn’t mean they are trusted by users. Users will give away their details while still thinking they are being abused in a phenomenon known as the “privacy paradox” (The Royal Society 7). This could be seen in the aftermath of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal- user numbers did not fall as predicted and people continued to use the service with only 5% of users deleting their accounts and 6% intending to (Tan). However, Facebook has been damaged by this and users do not trust the platform with their data. Therefore, as a profession, librarians cannot rely on legislation to safeguard privacy or the reputation of libraries. Floridi agrees stating that ethical consideration of technology is especially relevant in Europe. Legislation paints with broad strokes and technology changes so quickly that legalities are always chasing to catch up; no legislation can cover all eventualities therefore we need to constantly debate what is the best or most ethical decision within the law. Floridi calls these post-compliance ethical decisions “soft ethics” (Floridi 163-167). Patrons will want a service and compromise their digital safety in its pursuit so librarians have to be ethically vigilant. The platforms that we chose to accommodate the wealth of knowledge that e-literature contains have a real impact on the lives of users therefore LIS professional must be careful on behalf of their users.


In conclusion, e-books and e-journals “make us choose…which values to advance and which to sacrifice. We’re making these value choices every time we sign a contract” (Yelton). E-books and e-journals are now a fundamental part of academic life; they are changing the way users approach libraries and their ways of retrieving and accessing information and this essay has shown how the decisions LIS professions make impact ethically on this process. In widening access to information for a diverse range of individuals and by facilitating the Open Access movement electronic publishing has increased accessibility for some users which allows more engagement with education and research and benefits for society such as democracy and equality. However, in striving to progress in a digital direction information workers must ensure that the costs of access to resources and publishing do not become prohibitive. Furthermore, in searching for e-books and e-journals this essay has shown that search engines are not transparent in their operations which impacts on what searchers can see and potentially how they see the world. In adapting to a world where user’s expect Google capabilities libraries must ensure that they maintain the neutrality of the catalogue and do not become politicised and commercialised spaces. Lastly, when students and researchers do chose to use the library catalogue librarians must ensure that the privacy and protection of data is foremost in platform negotiations. As shown above legislation can only protect users in as much as service providers are willing to engage with it and if we are to maintain the trust of users in this digital age LIS must constantly probe beyond legal issues and into the ethical considerations of all the choices available. Continuing to champion the rights of users while offering up to date services is a complex issue as this essay has shown for one particular facet of technology. But by being aware of the ethical issues and prioritising them in careful thought and planning e-books and e-journals can continue to expand as an essential part of the modern library.


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About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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