What are the work-based ethical issues concerning you?

Work based ethical survey results

In this, the second in a series of blog posts setting out the results of CILIP’s recent Ethics Survey, which attracted 1556 responses, we look at the work-based issues identified from an analysis of the quantitative and free-text comment data.  

What are the big issues facing our profession?

It’s imperative that a revised ethical framework for our profession is grounded in the realities of working life. To achieve this, our Big Conversation on ethics is issues-based rather than theoretically driven, and in our survey we asked you whether you have felt concerned by a work-based ethical issue, and suggested what some of these issues might be.   

Have you ever felt concerned by a work-based ethical issue related to any of the following


Table setting out responses to the question “Have you ever felt concerned by a work based ethical issue related to any of the following? Select any that apply”

1,290 respondents answered this question, and of those 97 (7.52%) had not felt such concerns (see “not applicable”).  Of the 1,193 (92.48%) who had, copyright infringement emerged as the issue people are most likely to grapple with (56.28% of respondents identified selected this). This concurs with the findings of the Copyright Literacy Survey, undertaken in the UK in December 2014 and completed by over 600 library and information professionals (Morrison and Secker, 2015). Whilst this survey found that the copyright literacy of UK librarians compared favourably with countries around the world (Todorova et al, 2014), it still emerged as a “source of fear and anxiety” for many (Secker and Morrison, 2016, p2).

Funding limitations, and professional skills and standards

Funding limitations and their impact emerged as the second most common problem, with 50.54% of respondents (652) selecting this from our list. This was followed by concerns around professional skills and standards (“lack of necessary skills in staff to do a job to a good standard”), with 47.29% (610) respondents identifying this as a problem.  


44.88% of people (579) identified user/client information privacy to be an issue of concern.  This is unsurprising as respondents to Shape the Future put privacy and confidentiality in the top 10 priority policy agendas for CILIP to address during the lifetime of the Action Plan (2016-2020). CILIP is currently addressing this with a privacy project, which got underway in July this year and will run until October 2018.   This project will advise the Ethics Review. CILIP will also be hosting a Privacy Briefing on 28 November, 2017 – full details can be found on the events page.

Bullying and harassment

Over a quarter of respondents (26.67%) are concerned about bullying and harassment.  We cannot ascertain from the quantitative nature of this data whether this is a concern about workplace bullying, the bullying of users, or a combination of both.  

And many other issues...

“There have been occasions when I have had to take actions which I feel are not within the code of ethics I have as a librarian”.

The list suggested by us in the survey question is not exhaustive, of course, and respondents were invited to tell us about other work-based issues that are concerning them. 123 respondents did so and from an analysis of their free text comments we identified over 80 different issues, the majority of which can be grouped under one of 9 broad headings:

  • Barriers to accessing information

Barriers to accessing information emerged as the most common concern for respondents, with 31 comments, over 25% of the total, relating to this. Of these, censorship was the leading concern, attracting 16 comments:

“Issues of censorship and attempts by outside parties to control what's kept in our libraries (both in keeping certain items out, and also in interfering in our attempts to create a working, useful collection by withdrawing titles)”.

Eight comments were about copyright and licensing, with one person raising the tension between “upholding democratic access to information while also upholding IP, copyright and DRM rights”, and another about employers failing to consult librarians before committing to providing services “that are potentially in breach of licences”.  

Other issues raised included intellectual freedom, the erosion of shared access within the university sector, and balancing reading materials with age recommendations and pupil requests.

  • Impartiality and bias

“Provision of information which has been selectively chosen to show a bias towards a certain procedure in healthcare delivery”

Eleven respondents spoke about impartiality, raising issues such as biased resources and service provision, sometimes due to political influences:

“Political viewpoints of the leader and members of the authority impacting upon authority and service policies and practices”

  • Equalities

18 of the free text responses related to equality, with concerns being raised about, for example, disabled access to library and information services, racism, including receiving an accusation of institutional racism based on texts held in a library, ageist remarks from a colleague, and sexism directed at both men and women:

“Sexism - having occasionally felt at the receiving end of this as a male in a female dominated service”.   

A lack of diversity in the profession was raised by 3 respondents, with one person expressing concerns that:

“Large libraries recruit and promote too much from within their organizations, reducing opportunities for talented new staff to come from outside, ultimately damaging the service provided to users”.

CILIP has committed to addressing problems such as this through our Equalities and Diversity Action Plan, which was launched in the summer.

Respondents also raised issues relating to the digital divide, citing, for example, concerns that a “focus on digital delivery can also challenge equity of access”, widening participation, safeguarding vulnerable adult library users, and equality of representation in an organisation's marketing materials.

  • Employment related issues

Seventeen respondents raised issues relating to employment practices, with concerns about recruitment biases, restructuring, unprofessional behaviour of colleagues and poor leadership flagged up as problems.  For five respondents consultation processes are a concern, whether that’s a lack of opportunity to be involved or “the 'neutrality of consultations' in which the respondent is being guided towards a response the organisation wants rather than being able to answer freely and influence a change”

  • Volunteering

Seven respondents made reference to the use of volunteers and the ethical challenges this could present.  As well as job substitution, concerns about the “use of volunteers and their adherence to standards” was raised:

“I'm really alarmed by the move towards volunteers running libraries. I've worked with volunteers in other environments & it can be hard to insist that non-employees adhere to a particular ethical standpoint.”

  • Marketization

Six respondents spoke about marketization, with “concepts such as students are customers, competitor institutions, customer satisfaction, the bottom line etc” being identified as concerns.

  • Professional standards and skills, privacy, cuts and service pressures

There was some amplification of the quantitative data set out in the table above with free text comments about a lack of professional standards and skills, privacy and funding limitations and their impact (as well as copyright, already discussed).  Six respondents spoke about a lack of professional standards and skills, and six about privacy, citing, for example, the complexity of Data Protection legislation as a concern, as well as the incorrect retention of personal data. Staff being unable to do their jobs due to under-resourcing, cut backs in local government resulting in a loss of system and data specialists, and space limitations were amongst the five resourcing related issues raised.

What’s next

The survey may have closed but there is still plenty of opportunity to tell us about the issues that concern you in your work or that challenge the profession as a whole. Why not sign up for one of our UK-wide Ethics Workshops? We will be holding a workshop prior to the CILIP AGM at 3.00pm on 12 October in London. Workshops are also being held in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, plus some sessions on the New Professionals Day at CILIP (25 October). Others will be arranged by CILIP Member Networks. If you are a member of a network that would like to hold an ethics workshop, please see our supporting resources.

And look out for further blog posts over the coming weeks discussing what the quantitative and free-text comment survey data is telling us about the value of Ethics and Ethical Principles.  We’ll also be blogging about segmented responses (i.e. by sector, level of responsibility, ethnicity, gender, age etc).

Thank you for making your voice heard during our Big Conversation on Ethics!

We also acknowledge and thank our Ethics Committee, Chaired by Dawn Finch, for acting as the Project Management Board for this Ethics Review.

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