Ethics are for everyone!

by Moriana Garcia
Carlson Science and Engineering Library, University of Rochester
Kristin Bogdan
Engineering Library, University of Saskatchewan

In this blog post, we would like to put out a call to action – that librarians seriously consider taking whatever ethics training is available at their home institution, whether they have a specific requirement to do so or not. We came together as research collaborators due to a mutual interest in visual research methods, and our plan to employ those methods in our practice. We intend to publish the research, so we began our journey through the research ethics process. The more we learned about it, the more we realized that this training could have an impact in many areas of our work.

In libraries we collect data about the people that use our spaces, collections, and online resources all of the time. This can be benign and completely anonymous, like gate counts, or specific to individuals, like patrons borrowing records. The systems that we use to provide content to our communities collect information in ways that we don’t even think, and may not fit within our professional or personal sense of ethics. Patrons’ privacy is a common topic of discussion in public libraries, but not so frequently in academic ones. An organization that is trying to change that is the Library Freedom Project. The group, a partnership among librarians, technologists, attorneys, and privacy advocates, aims to promote intellectual freedom in libraries by educating librarians on government and corporate surveillance threats, privacy rights of the population, and the responsibility of libraries to protect those rights. Their website provides access to several educational resources on these topics, and it is a good starting point for librarians interested in privacy issues.

Research ethics training is one way to become more aware of the ethical issues that we face in our practice and in our research. We both went through the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) Program online training. This training is regulated by the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) in Canada or the Office of Human Subject Protection in the United States. These offices aim to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects at the institutional level. They usually manage the local Research Ethics Board (REB), or Institutional Review Board (IRB) in the U.S., which reviews, approves and follows up on any research project involving human subjects, and provide education and training for researchers on ethical research issues and human subjects safety. Training on human subject research traditionally covers the historical development of human subject protections, as well as current regulatory information and ethical issues related to the topic. An intimate understanding of concepts such as vulnerable populations, consent, and what is known as the three research pillars in research ethics — respect for persons, beneficence and justice — is an important part of the training. You can get more information about these topics in the Belmont Report.

Ethics training will increase your awareness of any possible ethical issues and where you can go for help. Much of the assessment work that we do as librarians will qualify as exempt when it comes to ethics, but you still need to get approval from your ethics office if you want to publish. At the 2016 C-EBLIP Fall Symposium, the keynote speaker, Margaret Henderson, suggested that you should get ethics approval for any project where there is even a remote chance that it will be used for research. Another suggestion from Margaret that could facilitate ethics approval is having a shared set of research instruments (surveys, interview and focus questions protocols) that librarians could use for their evaluation and assessment activities. Using the same instruments as others will take out some of the stress of creating new surveys before going through the ethics process and it will make it easier to compare results across different libraries, which would create a base of LIS research that would be of great value to the profession.

In conclusion, it is well worth the time to go through the ethics training. Going through this process will also help you talk to faculty about their research and allow you to point them in the direction of the research ethics office. Ideally, we would go through the training in our LIS education in order to get a sense of the requirements of doing research on human subjects. We work with vulnerable communities all of the time, so understanding how our practice and research impacts them is in the best interest of everyone.

Henderson, M. “Collaborating to Increase the Evidence Base in Library and Information Practice.” C-EBLIP Fall Symposium. October 12, 2016.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.