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For Submission to the ISJ Special Issue on Responsible IS Research
Outline of 25 August 2019
Roger Clarke **
© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2019
Available under an AEShareNet licence or a Creative Commons licence.
This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/RISR6.html
The Call for Papers for the Special Issue refers to the "moral obligation for researchers to make the world a better place", in economic, social, personal and environmental terms. The notion of 'responsible' applicable to this analysis is therefore usage (c) in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Of a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way".
Moral principles are primarily a personal matter, whereas the invocation of ethics assumes the existence of external standards against which actions can be assessed. An enunciation of ethical principles relevant to the IS discipline is the AIS Code of Research Practice (AIS 2014). This primarily regulates the behaviour of researchers in relation to one another. It does, however, express two forms of "recommended ethical behavior" in relation to other people: "give priority to the public interest, particularly when designing or implementing new information systems or other designed artefacts", and "respect the rights of research subjects".
IS professionals, on the other hand, have various Codes to choose from. The ACM Code requires professionals to "contribute to society and to human well-being, acknowledging that all people are stakeholders in computing", to "avoid harm" and to "respect privacy" (ACM 2018). The IEEE Code's stipulations are to"hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, to strive to comply with ethical design and sustainable development practices, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment" (IEEE 1963). The British Computer Society's requirements are "due regard for public health, privacy, security and wellbeing of others and the environment, and for the legitimate rights" of [any] person or organisation that might be affected by the professional's activities (BCS 2015). The Australian Computer Society makes reference to placing the interests of the public above those of personal, business or sectional interests, of enhancing the quality of life of those affected by professionals' work (ACS 2014). Noteworthy about this sample are the diversity of interpretations, the limited evidence of enforcement, and the substantial absence of a jurisprudence, in the sense of a body of judgements applying the ethical principles in specific contexts.
Reflecting the above documents, the following are adopted as the characteristics of responsible IS research:
This article responds to the challenge to demonstrate specific ways in which IS research can contribute to making the world a better place. It does so by applying the insights of theory relating to researcher perspective, in order to identify and describe six categories of IS research that can evidence responsibility, and to provide exemplars of each.
The notion of 'stakeholders' has been widely adopted since the 1980s, to refer to the entities that have an interest in a particular context (Freeman & Reed 1983, Freeman 1984). Each stakeholder has a perspective that reflects their perception of phenomena within the relevant context, their value-set, and the interests that they seek to protect and advance. Although stakeholders are most commonly conceptualised as natural or legal entities, the notion can be applied more broadly to encompass more abstract notions, such as community, society, economy, polity and environment.
The perspective adopted by IS researchers is the subject of a body of theory presented in Clarke & Davison (2019). Its central proposition is that research is seldom conducted in a holist or universalist manner, reflecting the interests of all stakeholders at once. It is very challenging for a researcher to convincingly claim omni-cognisance, and hence it is common for researchers to adopt the perspective of one party, or the perspectives of a small number of the parties, involved in or affected by the events. Hence:
A Researcher Perspective is a particular stakeholder perspective that is adopted by a researcher as the, or a, viewpoint from which to observe phenomena during the conduct of a research project
Prior empirical research has established that, in a large proportion of published IS research, the researcher perspective adopted is singular, and in a large proportion of cases is that of the organisation that sponsors the development of the system under observation (Clarke 2015, 2016). The relative simplicity of such research enables researchers to focus tightly, limit the number of variables under consideration, and satisfy the demands of rigorous application of research techniques. The approach has disadvantages, however, in that interests other than those of the favoured stakeholder are treated, at best, as constraints on the achievement of that stakeholder's objectives, and hence the research, in achieving depth, sacrifices breadth of understanding of the phenomena.
Beyond single-perspective research, two further forms are available, which are capable of delivering deeper insights into the phenomena, and more realistic and useful information to decision-makers. Dyads, comprising two relevant entities, are commonly adopted as the object of study, yet the researcher perspective adopted is commonly the viewpoint of just one of them. In 'dual-perspective research', the researcher adopts both perspectives, and thereby internalises the tensions between the two sets of interests, rather than treating one set as exogenous variables. An approach that is yet more challenging to perform well, but capable of delivering valuable information, is 'multi-perspective research'.
In each of the three cases of single-, dual- and multi-perspective research, it is useful to differentiate particular kinds of stakeholder whose interests may be selected as the focus of the work. In this section, six categories of researcher perspective are considered. The purpose of this research is to articulate each of those categories, outline the characteristics that responsible IS research in each category would have, and identify exemplars. Because of the dominance of system sponsor interests, the proportion of published IS research that falls into the second to sixth categories is currently small.
As noted earlier, published IS research is dominated by the perspective of the system sponsor. Such research, by definition, risks being irresponsible in relation to the interests of all stakeholders other than the system sponsor.
In addition, research of this kind risks being irresponsible to the client, the system sponsor. To satisfy the requirements of resposnsibility, researchers need to at least identify the other stakeholders whose interests are not reflected in their work, and warn the client that the narrowness of the research approach means that inferences drawn from it may be sub-optimal and even quite wrong, and that this could lead to decisions and actions that are ineffective and that may be harmful, not only to other stakeholders but also to the system sponsor.
One way in which IS research can exhibit greater responsibility is to commit a larger proportion of resources to the interests of stakeholders other than the system sponsor. In B2C research, for example, the consumer perspective can be adopted. Where the object of study is the workplace, the researcher can reflect the perspective of employees. Research into marketspaces, rather than treating the marketspace operator or a dominant trader as the client, can adopt a sub-dominant trader. In consumer-credit data systems, the focus can be consumers.
However, the qualification that applies to the system-sponsor-only researcher perspective applies to this category as well: the interests of consumers, employees and sub-dominant traders may be poorly-served by blinkered research that ignores the interests of system sponsors, particularly given that such organisations are usually powerful.
A common and effective form of dual-perspective research involves the juxtaposition of two key players whose interests are at least in part in conflict. B2C research can adopt the viewpoints of both the marketer and consumers. In workplace studies, both the employer and the employee can be treated as clients. Marketspace research can address both the marketspace operator and traders. Studies of consumer-credit data systems can consider the needs of both the system operator and organisations that use its services, or both the system operator and consumers.
Consideration can also be given to a broader conception of the Second Party. Many IS have substantial impacts on communities, society, the polity, the economy or the environment, and the interests of one of these can be juxtaposed against those of the system sponsor.
In some contexts, the interests of other pairs of stakeholders may exhibit tensions that are deserving of study. In B2C research, the pair can be marketers' employees and their consumers; in workplace studies, both employees and their families; in marketspace research, both buyers and sellers; in consumer-credit data systems, both the organisations that extract copies of data and the consumers to whom the data relate.
As with the previous category, it is also possible to juxtapose the interests of a category of entity against those of some broader notion, e.g. by considering the economic impacts of lenders accessing credit-bureau data, the family impacts of working at home, or the environmental impacts of remote working.
On the one hand, it is extremely challenging to encompass the interests of large numbers of entities, and particularly so where highly rigorous methods are demanded as a condition of publication.
On the other hand, there are prior instances of such IS research. One example is supply-chain projects, in which some studies consider the interests of all parties within the supply chain, or even of all parties both within the supply chain and served by it, i.e. including the ultimate customers. In studies of networks of entities, such as arises in international trade and in the trafficking of personal data in web-commerce, studies have been undertaken that reflect the interests of various among the many parties in the network. Similarly, research exists in the strategic IS field that considers 'win-win-win' strategies, and 'collaborate to compete' approaches such as shared, sector-wide information infrastructure.
Governments bear the responsibility to adopt broad views. To date, the IS discipline has seldom contributed much to public policy formation. If the notion of 'responsible IS research' means something, then it implies that such research firstly is within-scope of the discipline, and secondly should be performed.
Such work needs to reflect the interests of all or most parties. It also needs to generate insights into market failures and inequities that indicate the need for policy responses. Some public policy measures are stimulative of activity, and others are concerned with the regulation of behaviours and the redistribution of benefits.
The final section of the article will reflect on the opportunities that the above six caterogies of responsible IS research open up. It will also identify and discuss key challenges, such as appropriate research techniques for each category, and the practicality of conducting research projects (as distinct from programs) and reporting on complex projects in article-length publications.
One difficulty is the limited vision evident to date in both IS and cognate disciplines. Within US Business Schools, an initiative has arisen referred to as 'Responsible Research in Business and Management' (RRBM 2017). The movement's primary concern is to shift the rigour-relevance balance back towards usefulness to the real world - which is an important element of 'responsible research' as that term is used in this article. However, RRBM makes only a half-hearted attempt at improving researchers' adoption of perspectives other than that of the systems sponsor. It mentions other stakeholders, but the interests reflected in the manifesto are dominated by those of business. The document acknowledges that "There is a low priority given to how research could benefit business and the broader society, including employees, customers, and communities" (p.12), yet it argues only for research that "involves" and "engages different stakeholders" rather than research that is for those stakeholders. Similarly, it identifies "topics [that] business school research [should] focus on" (p.12), and hence limits its proposals to additional objects of study, rather than also encompassing additional stakeholder perspectives.
The challenge in the field of IS is even greater than in other disciplines. This is because IS has not only become very heavily committed to the pursuit of rigour at the cost of relevance; and is currently placing high value on intellectualisation and erudition; but has also relegated interests other than those of the system sponsor to small corners of its output. This article shows six ways in which responsibility can be demonstrated by IS researchers through adjustment of their scope and focus, without the need for wholesale re-definition of the discipline.
ACM (2018) 'Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct' Association for Computing Machinery, June 2018, at https://www.acm.org/binaries/content/assets/about/acm-code-of-ethics-booklet.pdf
ACS (2014) 'Code of Professional Conduct' Australian Computer Society, April 2014, at https://www.acs.org.au/content/dam/acs/rules-and-regulations/Code-of-Professional-Conduct_v2.1.pdf
AIS (2014) 'Code of Research Conduct' Association for Information Systems, May 2014, at https://aisnet.org/page/AdmBullCResearchCond
BCS (2015) 'Code of Conduct' British Computer Society, June 2015, at https://www.bcs.org/upload/pdf/conduct.pdf
Clarke R. (2015) 'Not Only Horses Wear Blinkers: The Missing Perspectives in IS Research' Proc. ACIS'15, Adelaide, December 2015, at https://arxiv.org/pdf/1611.04059
Clarke R. (2016) 'An Empirical Assessment of Researcher Perspectives' Proc. 29th Bled eConf., Slovenia, June 2016, PrePrint at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/BledP.html
Clarke R. & Davison R. (2019) 'Through Whose Eyes? The Critical Concept of Researcher Perspective' Forthcoming, J.Assoc. Infor. Syst., 2019, PrePrint at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/RPBo8.html
Freeman R.E. & Reed D.L. (1983) ' Stockholders and Stakeholders: A New Perspective on Corporate Governance' California Management Review 25, 3 (1983) 88-106
Freeman R.E. (1984) 'Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach' Ballinger, 1984
IEEE (1963) 'Code of Ethics' IEEE, 1963, at https://www.ieee.org/about/corporate/governance/p7-8.html
RRBM (2017) 'A Vision of Responsible Research in Business and Management: Striving for Useful and Credible Knowledge' Position Paper, Community for Responsible Research in Business and Management, 22 November 2017, at https://rrbm.network/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Position_-Paper.pdf
Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in Cyberspace Law & Policy at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Computer Science at the Australian National University.
The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.
From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 60 million in early 2019.
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This document is at www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/RISR6.html