Exploring Motivations for Surprising views about Ethical Issues in Information Systems

Mary Prior, Simon Rogerson and N. Ben Fairweather



A longitudinal study is being conducted into the ethical attitudes of IS professionals, sponsored by the Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS). The latest phase of the study (the ‘2006 survey’) was conducted during 2006-2007 [1]. There were several participant groups, including final year undergraduates studying at a UK university. There were some intriguing differences in the responses of the different participant groups to certain issues. This paper presents the results of a follow-up study with a UK final year undergraduate group similar to the one that took part in the 2006 survey, to probe in more detail their attitudes to three key issues (intellectual property, use of employers’ facilities and electronic surveillance). The issues arising from the study will be discussed and the potential for further work will be explored.


The 2006 survey consisted of statements to which respondents indicated the strength of their agreement, or disagreement using a Lickert scale. This gave rise to some interesting findings. For example, a considerable proportion of the UK students appear to endorse the making of illegal copies of software and to consider acceptable the use of their employer’s computer facilities for their own personal profit-making activities.

However there are limitations to such a survey. It is possible that respondents have mis-interpreted the statements. It is also possible some may have answered untruthfully. Even if the integrity of the interpretation and the responses is assumed, the findings may provide an overview of attitudes held but cannot explain why respondents hold them. The statements are necessarily brief and cannot capture the richness of a particular ethical decision-making situation. The respondent cannot be challenged, nor asked to explain the reasoning behind their response to a particular statement [2].

To overcome some of these limitations, a follow-up study was devised with final year undergraduate student groups. Each group is studying a computer ethics-related module; two are based in the UK and, to provide cultural contrast, a third in Malaysia. One of the UK groups comprises students studying more ‘technical’ computing courses (Computer Science and Software Engineering); the other comprises students on more business-oriented courses (e.g. Business Information Systems). The Malaysian students are studying Computer Science.

Three topics were chosen, on the basis of the variety of responses that students made to them in the survey: electronic surveillance in the workplace, use of employers’ facilities and intellectual property. Vignettes were created for each topic to generate discussion about the issue among the student groups. The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Blackboard is used by the respective computer ethics modules as an integral part of students’ learning, and the Discussion Board facility was the mechanism used to stimulate student debate. By the end of the study, each student group will have had the opportunity to debate two topics. To maintain standards of research ethics, students were informed “…that the materials that are posted on this thread will be used in research but only in an anonymous form” and that if students “do not wish to participate in this thread that is perfectly acceptable”.

As a follow up to the online discussion, focus groups will be convened to pursue the issues raised during the debates. An evaluation of the effectiveness of these research instruments will form part of the submitted paper.

Study Findings

At the time of submission of this abstract, the online discussions are underway. The Blackboard Discussion forum is proving to be a successful mechanism for engaging students, who have been used to using it for the computing ethics modules during recent months. It is enabling them to explain the reasoning behind a particular opinion, to provide examples to support a point of view and to support or challenge each other’s contributions.

The “use of employers’ facilities” is the issue that has so far generated the greatest interest. Some students clearly distinguish between profit- and non-profit-making activities; others appear to condone use of University facilities by a research student (for both types of activity) while saying unauthorized use of a (presumably commercial) employer’s facilities is not ethical. Authorization for either type of use is seen as a key issue. Some sympathy is expressed with the plight of a graduate using her employer’s facilities to earn money to pay off her student debt, while others maintain that whatever the motivation, it is always wrong to make unauthorized use of facilities. The perceived distinction between an “employer” and the “university” is one that will be interesting to pursue in the focus groups.

Example Vignette: Use of employer’s facilities

Abdul is the secretary of a sports club, a job he does in his spare time on a voluntary basis, providing something positive for teenagers to do to help keep them out of trouble. He regularly stays behind after work, using his employer’s facilities to prepare and print off notices, letters and so on for the club. The club treasurer is a University student. She uses the University’s IT facilities to run the membership database, print receipts for payments, etc. Jenny works full-time as a programmer. To help pay off her student debt she also undertakes freelance work in her own time. She regularly stays behind after work to use her employer’s facilities to carry out this profitable freelance work. Jenny has teamed up with a friend from University who has stayed on as a full-time research student. He uses the University’s facilities to complete work that she sub-contracts out to him and for which she pays him.

What do you think of Abdul and Jenny’s behaviour, and the behaviour of their student friends? Would you behave in the same way? Does it make a difference that one pair are using their employer’s and university’s facilities for a voluntary, non-profit-making activity, while the others are engaged in a profit-making business?

The surveillance issue has so far generated two contrasting views; firstly, that CCTV has an overall benefit and that monitoring of resource use is to ensure it is not misused. In countering this one student cites research to support the view that CCTV can “get it wrong” and poses the question: who defines what constitutes “suspicious” behaviour? Whether the CCTV used in University computer laboratories complies with the appropriate guidelines is questioned. A student also questions the monitoring of their use of the VLE; while they accept that tutors do this, they wonder who else has access to this information.


Although the study is not yet complete, early indications are that the variety of views expressed will provide some interesting outcomes to report in the completed paper. This will be of interest to both those involved in educating the future generation of IS professionals, and those who will be employing them.


[1] Prior, M. Fairweather, N.B. Rogerson, S, Hawash, M. (2008) Is IT Ethical? 2006 ETHICOMP Survey of Professional Practice. IMIS.

[2] Bryman, A. (2004) Social Research Methods. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.