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Review Version of 16 December 2018
Wanying Jia, Robert M Davison & Roger Clarke **
© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2018
Available under an AEShareNet licence or a Creative Commons licence.
This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/RPBo8.html
When observing phenomena, IS researchers mostly adopt the perspective of one of the stakeholders in the activities, commonly that of the sponsor of the information system that is in focus. This article reports on an investigation of researcher perspectives adopted in published IS research. We analysed 659 articles published in AIS Basket journals in the years 2001, 2008 and 2015. We found that 96% of relevant articles adopted a single-perspective approach, and 93% of those were oriented towards the system sponsor. Further, 93% of articles considered only economic aspects of the phenomena under investigation. These are significant findings, because they suggest that the discipline has not been exploiting opportunities to deliver greater value through dual- and multi-perspective research, triangulation of perspectives, and research on the social and environmental dimensions.
The phenomena studied by researchers within the information systems (IS) discipline are complex, and involve multiple actors. Sometimes those actors view the phenomena in much the same way. In most circumstances, however, their attitudes exhibit material differences. For example, managers may consider organisational policies and procedures to be the key vehicles for ensuring reliability and consistency in the performance of tasks; on the other hand employees who engage in front-line work may regard them merely as guidelines that require reflexive interpretation as they cope with the wide variety of circumstances that naturally characterise the workplace.
Since the adoption of interpretivism as a viable research approach within the discipline, it has been conventional to recognise that phenomena can be viewed from multiple perspectives, and that a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon requires triangulation, that is to say that the different points-of-view of key actors need to be taken into account. This is represented by an Indian parable over two millennia old, in which several blind men have widely-varying interpretations of an elephant, because each person's perception is based on their tactile experience with a different part of the animal. Similarly, the Chinese expression Guan Zhong Kui Bao means 'to see a leopard through a narrow tube', and hence to have a limited view of something.
We use the term 'researcher perspective' to refer to a particular stakeholder's point-of-view that is adopted by the person or team conducting a particular research project. A project may involve only a single perspective. This would be the case, for example, where the following research question is adopted:
What measures are most effective at achieving staff compliance with security policies?
A research project to address that question would be likely to adopt the perspective of the Chief Security Officer (CSO), on behalf of the organisation as a whole, although it may be necessary to consider the whole of a research report to reach a reliable conclusion, rather than making such an interpretation on the basis of the research question alone.
Other projects adopt dual and even multiple perspectives, as for example, where the following research question is addressed:
Are Internet Services Providers' perceptions of quality of service consistent with those of their customers?
In devising a research design to address this question, the researcher inevitably adopts the perspectives of both ISPs and customers of ISPs. In the resulting report, the researcher may well prioritise the interests of the ISP, which would then be the primary beneficiary; but the depth of consideration of the customers' interests would be sufficient that they are reasonably regarded as a co-beneficiary.
We have previously conducted several exploratory studies of the researcher perspectives adopted in papers in a number of venues in which IS research is published. These gave rise to results that were surprising, even disturbing. We considered how we might gain insight into the extent to which those results were indicative of the patterns within the IS discipline as a whole. A study of the entire output of the discipline would, however, require far greater resources than are available to us. We accordingly sought an approach that was capable of delivering significant findings, even if they cannot be generalised to the discipline as a whole.
We selected as our focus the AIS Basket of 8 journals. These venues are projected as being 'leading', in the senses of being highly-regarded, highly-cited and much-read, and providing exemplars to entrant and early-career researchers. A wide variety of articles have used Basket of 8 journals as a population or sampling frame, including Lowry et al. (2014), Grover & Lyytinen (2015) and Tarafdar & Davison (2018).
The general research question that we sought to answer was:
What do articles in Basket of 8 journals tell us about researcher perspectives adopted in IS research?
We defined the eight journals as the population, selected three individual years (2001, 2008 and 2015) as the sampling frame, and undertook a carefully designed study of researcher perspectives in the resulting set of articles.
We commence with an outline of theory relating to researcher perspective, and a summary of the results of the exploratory research projects. This is followed by a discussion of methodological considerations and presentation of the research design and protocol that we devised for this study. The findings are then presented and discussed, and implications drawn.
The word 'perspective' is frequently used in articles in the IS literature to refer to the approach adopted (positivist, interpretivist, etc.), or the theoretical lens applied, or the target-audience of the research (in particular, academics, students or practitioners). These senses of the term are not the focus of the research reported here. We accordingly use the more specific terms 'stakeholder perspective' and 'researcher perspective', and provide definitions for each of them.
This section outlines the theory underlying those terms, distinguishes single-, dual- and multi-perspective research, defines the term 'system sponsor', and then discusses the further notion of the dimension on which each perspective lies.
The origins of the stakeholder notion can be traced back to the work of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in 1963, which defined stakeholders as Òthose groups without whose support the organization would cease to existÓ (Freeman and Reed, 1983). Freeman (1984) later modified this to "a stakeholder in an organization [is] any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization's objectives". Since our focus is not limited to organizations, we adopt a still broader interpretation, as follows:
A Stakeholder is an entity that perceives itself to be at least potentially affected by an activity.
The purpose of our adapted definition is to generalise the nature of the entities that may be stakeholders affecting any other kind of entity and to thereby encompass diverse relationships including B2B, B2C, G2B, C2C, etc. We also reflect the conventional approach of excluding remote entities that may affect activities but are not affected by them.
The notion of stakeholders has long been applied in IS research. The earliest definition found in the IS literature is "those who depend on the organization for the realization of some of their goals, and in turn, the organization depends on them in some way for the full realization of its goals" (Mitroff & Mason, 1980, quoted in Mendelow 1981). Seddon et al. (1998) referred to a stakeholder as "a person or group in whose interest the evaluation of IS success is being performed", and distinguished (1) an independent observer (who has no personal stake in the measure); (2) an individual user (who evaluates a system from his or her own point of view); (3) a group of users, e.g., of a group decision support system; (4) the management or owners of the organization; and (5) a country, or mankind. More recently, Sedara et al. (2004) specifically addressed "the importance of a multiple stakeholder perspective".
Many stakeholders are participants in the process that gives rise to the phenomenon that the researcher observes. Roles played by stakeholders include investor, data source, technology provider, system sponsor and user (Seddon et al., 1999). However, the categories of stakeholders are broader than this as Pouloudi & Whitley (1997, p.3) make clear, comprising not only Òparticipants in the information systems development process viz. individuals, groups or organisations who take part in a system development processÓ but also Òany other individuals, groups or organisations whose actions can influence or be influenced by the development and use of the system whether directly or indirectlyÓ. The term 'usee' has been coined (Clarke 1992, Fischer-H[[Ydieresis]]bner & Lindskog 2001, Baumer 2015) to refer to entities that lack the power to affect a process, but are nonetheless affected by it.
Each stakeholder, whether organisational or human, whether a powerful player or a weak one, and whether a participant in the system or an outsider that is affected by the system, has a point of view and interests that may be affected, and it may take action in relation to those interests:
A Stakeholder Perspective is the viewpoint adopted by a stakeholder in a particular activity, reflecting that stakeholder's perception of phenomena within the relevant context, its value-set, and the interests that it seeks to protect and advance
The design and conduct of research generally involves the adoption by the researcher of a viewpoint that privileges the interests of one or more stakeholders, in effect treating that or those stakeholders as the intended beneficiary/ies of the research. We define the concept central to this research as follows:
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
Foreground examples of stakeholders in IS research are corporations that develop and operate information systems, provide IS-related products and services, and operate facilities that support IS. Other categories of stakeholders whose viewpoints may be adopted include the many kinds of users and usees. Under some circumstances, it may be appropriate to treat abstract notions as stakeholders, such as the economy, society or the biosphere.
From prior studies, it is clear that one particular researcher perspective is very common in IS research. We refer to this category of stakeholder as the system sponsor, which we define as follows:
The System Sponsor is the entity that develops, implements or adapts a system, process or intervention, or causes it to be developed or implemented, or for whose benefit the initiative is undertaken
A system sponsor may be a single corporation, a government agency or a not-for-profit organisation (Duhan et al. 2001); or it may be a sub-organisational unit within such an organisation. It may be a collective of organisations such as a joint venture, a supply chain, or an industry segment or sector; or a category of organisations (such as organisations that use ERP software, or organisations that adopt a service such as a particular CRM or online office suite or accounting facility). Alternatively, it might be an individual performing an organisational role, such as a CEO, CIO or CSO (Ifinedo & Nahar, 2007; Singletary et al., 2003).
The notion of 'researcher perspective' is quite distinct from the 'object of study' and the 'unit of study' that are adopted in a research project. Extending the conventional optical metaphor, the 'object of study' is the set of phenomena that the researcher observes, and the 'unit of study' refers to the level of granularity at which observation is conducted. Researcher perspective, on the other hand, refers to the direction or orientation from which the observations of the phenomena are undertaken.
The perspective that the researcher adopts has a very significant influence on the entire research undertaking, commencing with the conception of the research, and moving on through the selection and formulation of research questions, to the research design. It effectively determines what is included among and excluded from the potential outcomes of the research, how those outcomes are expressed, and the contributions that the research can make. Because of its critical role, we contend that the choice needs to be a conscious and considered decision, rather than a default.
The preliminary discussion of researcher perspective above dealt with single-perspective studies, where the interests of one particular stakeholder are in focus, and the interests of all other stakeholders are secondary. This approach is mainstream, because it avoids complexities and enables conclusions to be expressed with only limited equivocation. However, other approaches are also possible.
Dual-perspective research is valuable in a number of circumstances. One is where a system sponsor wishes to understand and accommodate the needs of some other stakeholder because its disapproval of the project could lead to project failure. This may arise because of the other entity's market power (e.g. where it is a major supplier, customer, or trade union) or institutional power (e.g. in the case of a regulator, financier or insurer). Alternatively, there may be a legislative or contractual requirement that the system sponsor reflect the other stakeholder's interests. In some circumstances, the perspectives of two stakeholders other than the system sponsor may be studied by addressing a research question such as
What benefits from a government-run eHealth records system accrue to, respectively, health care professionals and patients?
Examples of dyads for which dual-perspective research can deliver value include buyer and seller in a B2B, B2C, B2G, C2B or C2C market space, marketing corporation and consumer, employer and employee, government service delivery agency and client, and government regulatory agency and regulatee. However, it is important to distinguish between studies in which a dyad is considered from the perspective of one party (e.g. most studies of outsourcing) from research that takes into account the interests of both parties, and designs the research in order to identify implications for them both. This is atypical of conventional 'strategic IS', and more commonly occurs in the contexts of business partnerships, strategic alliances, and collaborative infrastructure. An exemplar of dual-perspective IS research is Lin et al. (2015). This contrasts the interpretations of a system sponsor and the aboriginal people for whom a system was designed, showing that "a project that was intended to improve the education and social welfare of the aboriginal people in Taiwan" actually left them "feeling marginalized and without much of a voice" (p.697).
More broadly still, multi-perspective research can be undertaken. This approach is appropriate in cascaded supply-chains and in multi-organisational networks, where information system designs can have 'win-win-win' outcomes as a design criterion. In dual-perspective research contexts, some degree of conflict between the interests and the value-sets of the two stakeholders is likely to arise. In multi-perspective contexts, however, such conflicts are almost inevitable, and so there is likely to be a considerable degree of mutual non-comprehension by stakeholders of one another's interests (cf. Sedera et al., 2004). To the extent that IS research is to be relevant to policy-makers, it is necessary for research techniques to be adopted that cope with those aspects of the phenomena. An exemplar of multi-perspective research in a business context is Cameron & Clarke (1996), which studied multi-organisational project management in international trade EDI. An exemplar in the social policy space is Agarwal et al. (2012), which examined cyber-collective social movements such as the use of social media in the Arab Spring of 2010-2012.
The primary focus of stakeholder theory, as later expounded in Freeman (1994), was economic efficiency, in the sense of the ability of the firm to manage the interests of its multiple stakeholders (Shankar et al., 2002). Not only is a business enterprise's perspective on the economic dimension, but so too are many of the interests of government agencies, not-for-profit organisations and individuals, particularly in the area of operational efficiency.
However, IT and IS have come to be applied far more broadly than merely in the search for economic benefits. Many stakeholders are concerned about social impacts of economically efficient initiatives. It is therefore important to distinguish a social dimension. Examples of research questions at respectively the family and societal ends of the social dimension are:
What are the impacts on family life of decentralising call-centre operations to sub-contractors' home-offices? How does social media assist in addressing humanitarian aims following natural disasters?
A third dimension has become prominent during the last half-century. Early environmental movements related to atmospheric and water pollution, but have moved on to opposition to emissions associated with climate change, and in favour of sustainability. IT and IS are legitimate objects of study within these research domains (e.g. re-cyclability of computing components, and the energy usage of bitcoin-mining), but also have positive roles to play (e.g. carbon trading systems, fish-stock monitoring, and energy-efficiency management). It is therefore necessary to recognise an environmental dimension.
An example of a research question that lies on the environmental dimension is:
What features of a carbon trading system assist in the achievement of the climate-change objective of reducing harmful emissions?
Note that a research question that relates to energy usage intentions or the impact on consumers' purchasing decisions of information about the environmental impact of the materials used in alternative products may lie on either (or even both) of the environmental and the economic dimensions.
On all of the economic, social and environmental dimensions, units of study may be selected at various levels of abstraction. Hence the researcher perspectives adopted in projects may reflect the interests of an organisation, sub-unit, team or organisational role; of a society, community, unincorporated assocation, family or individual; or of a river basin, a wetlands area, a rain forest or a small plant-community.
A first pilot study was performed in 2015, in support of a Conference Keynote presentation (Clarke 2015). It examined the 36 articles in Volume 18 (2014) of the Australasian Journal of Information Systems (AJIS), and a sample of 38 articles from the 2014 Australasian Conference in Information Systems (ACIS). The findings were that 83% of the papers reported single-perspective studies, the perspective(s) adopted included the system-sponsor in 96% of cases, and 96% were on the economic dimension.
A second study examined 212 papers presented at 5 years of the Bled eConference, at 3-yearly intervals from 1991 to 2015 (Clarke 2016). This found that 87% were single-perspective papers, the system sponsor's was the sole perspective adopted in 85% of papers, and was present in a further 8% of papers that adopted dual- and multi-perspective approaches, for 93% in total, and the perspectives adopted were on the economic dimension in 94% of the papers. In all three cases, however, the percentages showed a downward trend from 1991 to 2015.
The research had been commenced because of the impression, gained from long-term scanning of the literature, that corporate interests strongly influenced IS research. These results suggested that the degree of influence might be appropriately described as dominance.
The venues from which samples were extracted were non-randomly selected (one arising from an invitation to present a keynote, and the other being a venue with which the researcher had a long-term association). The narrowness of the sampling frames precludes generalisations about the discipline as a whole. On the other hand, both venues are mainstream, and neither is structured as a specifically business discipline or Business School event. This motivated us to design a broader study that could deliver deeper insights into the question.
On the basis of the above theoretical discussion, we further articulated the general Research Question as follows:
This section outlines the design of the research and then the process undertaken in order to encode each article.
Studies of previous publications take several forms. Reports on empirical research commonly commence with a review of relevant literature on theory and prior empirical research in the area. These have been joined by systematic literature reviews and several forms of content analysis. A review of these techniques was conducted as part of the present research (Clarke 2017), in order to inform the design of the study reported on in this article.
As discussed above, we selected the 'Basket of 8' journals as our population. As defined by the Association for Information Systems, this comprises (in alphabetical order of abbreviations):
The eight journals commenced operation at various dates, and issues have been published with varying frequencies and containing varying numbers of articles per issue. In total, the count of articles (in the order of 3,000) is sufficiently high that it exceeds the available resources to analyse. It was therefore necessary to analyse a sample rather than the entire population.
We were interested in detecting whether the measures had changed over time, and we accordingly adopted a stratified sampling approach, by first selecting different years from which to select articles. We started this research in 2016, so the articles published in the year 2015 were selected. In order to provide a spread, we then chose as the starting-point the year after the commencement of the youngest of the journals (JAIS), which was 2001. The mid-point year, 2008, was added, to provide three points at 7-year intervals across a 15-year span.
This gave rise to 8*3 = 24 Volumes. The number of issues per volume varied both among journals and across years, and one journal published five issues in a relevant calendar year rather than its usual four. The sampling frame accordingly extended across a total of 118 issues. The focus was on refereed journal articles, and hence unrefereed contributions such as editorials, calls for papers, and book reviews were generally excluded from consideration. This produced a sampling frame of 659 articles. The number of articles per issue averaged 5.5. The number of articles per journal ranged between 49 and 124, around a mean of 82. Further aspects of the distribution are evident in Table 1, presented later in this section.
The assessment of articles requires familiarity with topics, methods and styles across the breadth of the discipline. It is also slow, and fatigue sets in reasonably quickly, which increases the elapsed time to complete the project and/or reduces data quality. At the outset, it was unclear to us how resource-intensive the assessment of each article would prove to be, and hence whether the resources that we could assign to the project would be sufficient to examine and encode this number of articles. We accordingly adopted a two-phase approach.
In the first phase, we selected a 20% sample (135 articles) of the articles within each volume in such a manner as to achieve reliability, reproducibility and pseudo-randomness. Within each journal, the first article was selected into the sample; in turn every fifth article thereafter was then selected, in the order in which they appeared in that journal in each of 2001, 2008, and 2015. We encoded articles on the basis of the full text, with particular reference to the title, abstract, introduction and conclusions, seeking out information relevant to the research method, intended beneficiary and target audience.
We then piloted an alternative approach, whereby we encoded articles based on the title and abstract alone. We compared the two approaches and established that differences were minimal, and that in all cases in which a potential difference in coding could have occurred, sufficient uncertainty existed that it was apparent that fuller assessment was needed.
We accordingly coded the remaining 80% of the sampling frame (524 articles) on the basis of the title and abstract, with the proviso that, where doubts arose, the first-phase method of checking the full text was to be applied. This was the case with 47 articles (9%). Checks established that a high level of confidence in the efficacy of the two-phase approach was warranted.
Articles were only relevant to the study if they evidenced a researcher perspective. The primary examples of articles that did not satisfy that criterion were teaching cases, research methodology articles, and reports addressed solely to researchers. These were coded DI (Discipline Internal). This removed 111 articles (17% of the 659 in the sampling frame), leaving 548 for detailed examination. This provided a satisfactory data-set for most of the intended purposes.
Table 1 summarises the counts of articles in the 8 journals, showing the numbers of articles that were not addressed to stakeholders external to the IS discipline, and the remaining number that are relevant to the present research.
Table 1: The Article Counts Journal/Volume 2001 2008 2015 Total DI Relevant EJIS 10, 17, 24 18 48 35 101 20 81 ISJ 11, 18, 25 15 26 20 61 12 49 ISR 12, 29, 36 23 25 46 94 10 84 JAIS 2, 9, 16 8 31 30 69 20 49 JIT 16, 23, 30 18 24 27 69 15 54 JMIS 17-18, 24-25, 35 41 48 124 9 115 31-32 JSIS 10, 17, 24 16 16 17 49 3 46 MISQ 25, 32, 39 16 34 42 92 22 70 Subtotal 149 245 265 659 111 548 DI 26 46 39 111 Relevant 123 199 226 548
The project team comprised three people. The coding protocol was established prior to the commencement of coding, based on the protocols used in the previous projects, but adapted to the context. It was iteratively refined during the coding process, with revisions made primarily with respect to descriptions of how the protocol was to be interpreted in particular contexts. This refinement of the protocol was necessitated by the complexities involved in applying the protocol consistently and systematically to a highly diverse set of articles.
The articles were first coded by a trained Research Assistant, then reviewed and if necessary re-coded by one of the lead-researchers, then further reviewed by the other lead-researcher. Where discrepancies arose, they were discussed and resolved. Respect for the protocol ensured that sufficient material was recorded about each article to show the basis on which codes were assigned, and to support review, audit, and replication. It was important that we achieve complete agreement on all codings, thereby satisfying the requirement for inter-rater reliability.
In order to be able to encode each article, a number of preliminary steps were necessary. A sufficiently deep understanding of an article depends on first appreciating the author's purpose. Depending on the type of research, this may be expressed in the form of a Research Question (for empirical work, both positivist and interpretivist), or an Objective (particularly for design science research), or a topic-area (in the case of theoretical discussions). The first two steps were accordingly to categorise the type of research, and to then isolate the purpose, wherever possible by extracting the author's own words but where necessary by inferring the purpose from the text as a whole.
The central concern of the assessment was the identification of researcher perspective. This was achieved by isolating passages that indicated the interests that are being represented and/or the audience to which the outcomes are addressed. Explicit statements were sought, but were seldom found. Even where found, however, they were evaluated within the context of the whole text. Key passages were noted.
Two aspects of researcher perspective were then encoded. A cardinality measure was recorded, to identify respectively single-, dual- and multi-perspective research. Secondly, each article was encoded as Single-Sponsor-Only, Other Single-Sponsor or Dual- or Multi-Perspective. Sufficient data was recorded to support deeper analyses where required.
The dimension was encoded as Economic, Social or Environmental, based on the presence, frequency and apparent importance of key concepts, as per Table 2. Prior research work had indicated to us that the Economic dimension was likely to dominate. In order to avoid under-counting the other two categories, marginal cases (e.g., a dual-perspective article that considered not only pricing issues but also consumer wellbeing), were allocated away from Economic (in all cases, to Social).
Table 2: Key Concepts for Identifying Research Dimension Economic Dimension Revenue, Costs, Profit, Market-Share, Growth Social Dimension Wellbeing, Fairness, Equity Environmental Dimension Resources, Waste, Pollution, Ecology
To enable RQ3 to be addressed, one further attribute of each article was encoded. The object of study was categorised as being Organisation (including individuals in organisational roles), Human(s) (other than when performing in organisational roles) or Technology. The Appendix provides access to the Coding Guidelines.
Of the 659 articles in the sampling frame, 548 (83%) were relevant to the study, in that they addressed the interests of real-world stakeholders. On the basis of the research process described above, we now report the results of our analysis, answering the specific Research Questions nominated earlier.
Of the 548 articles, 528 (96%) adopt a single-perspective approach rather than seeking a balance between the interests of two or more stakeholder groups. Single-perspective research is dominant in all of the journals (range 93-99%).
The large majority of single-perspective research is concerned with the interests of system sponsor - 491 articles (93% of the category, and 90% of all relevant articles). All journals evidence dominance of the system sponsor perspective (range 82-98%).
Of the 528 single-perspective articles, the perspective of a stakeholder other than the system sponsor is adopted in 37 (7%). Over half of the 37 are participants in online markets, in 14 cases sellers and in 8 buyers. Online communities feature in 4 papers, and participants in online communities in 8, while the perspective of 'meatspace' communities is the focus in 3. Over the 3 years, 1 journal published no such articles, 3 published 1 each, and the others 4, 6, 9 and JMIS 15. Table 3 identifies instances of system-sponsor and other-than-system-sponsor categories.
Table 3: Researcher Perspective Category Sub-Category Examples System Supply Chain Cha et al., 2008 Baldwin, et al. 2001; Sponsor Organisation Randall et al., 2001 Jones & Hughes, Government Agency 2001 Earl, 2001 Rutner et al., 2008 Senior Staff IT Professionals Other than Online Community Faraj et al., 2015 Singh et al., 2015 System Users Customers Gao, et al., 2015 Sponsor
Of the 548 articles, only 15 articles (3%) are dual-perspective and 5 (1%) multi-perspective, with the remaining 528 (96%) single-perspective.
The distribution across the journals is shown in Table 4. Cumulatively over the 3 sampled years, 5 journals each published precisely 1 dual-perspective article, EJIS and ISR each published 3, and JMIS published 4. Examples encompass:
Only 2 journals published any multi-perspective papers during the 3 years in the sample. One example is Whitley & Hosein (2008), which analysed UK parliamentary debates on the technological and scientific aspects of a proposed ID scheme.
Among the 548 articles, the most common object of study was Organisations, with 323 articles (59%). Technologies were the focus in 27 (5%) of the articles. Humans, including individuals and collective such as groups, teams and communities, were the object of study in 198 articles (36%).
Table 4: Perspectives in the Sample
(SS = System Sponsor, O = Other, D = Dual, M = Multi)
Journal Single-Perspective >1 Perspective Totals tit SS O D M EJIS 74 1 3 3 81 ISJ 48 1 49 ISR 72 9 3 84 JAIS 44 4 1 49 JIT 52 1 1 54 JMIS 94 15 4 2 115 JSIS 44 1 1 46 MISQ 63 6 1 70 Total 491 37 15 5 548
Of the 198 articles in which humans were the object of study, 167 (84%) adopted solely the system sponsor perspective, with the individual journals ranging from 72% (JMIS) to 94-95% (ISJ, JSIS, JAIS). Of the 24 journal volumes in the sample, 10 contained not a single article in which a human object of study was researched from a perspective other than that of the system sponsor.
Of the other 31 articles, 23 (12%) adopted a perspective other than that of the system sponsor. In most cases, the perspective was that of (usually some segment of) individual participants in social media or online communities, or in online markets. An exception was the study by Lin et al. (2015) considering an ICT4D project from both the system sponsor's and the intended beneficiaries' perspectives. See Figure 1.
The remaining 8 (4%) were dual- or multi-perspective in nature, 7 on the economic dimension and 1 on the social dimension. Of those 8, 5 (3%) included the system sponsor among the perspectives, bringing the total that reflected the system sponsor's interests to 172/198 (87%).
Single-perspective studies were dominant in all three years, 2001 (99%), 2008 (95%) and 2015 (96%).
On the other hand, the proportion of articles that considered exclusively the system sponsor perspective declined somewhat across the sampled years, from 94%, to 91%, to 85%, with other single-perspective research at 5%, 4% and 11%; the remaining few percentage-points are of articles that are dual- or multi-perspective in nature.
The Objects of Study were considerably different in the three years, with the focus on humans growing from c. 20% to 30% to 50%. The dominance of system-sponsor orientation in studies of humans changed very little, however, being respectively 22 articles (88%) in 2001, 52 (88%) in 2008, and 93 (82%) in 2015.
As shown in Table 5, of the 37 articles in which a single-perspective other than that of the system sponsor was adopted, 6 were published in 2001 and 7 in 2008, followed by a leap to 24 in 2015. Of the 24 articles in 2015, 92% were in just 4 of the 8 journals, and the surge was driven by social media and online community topics.
Table 5: Single-Perspective Research Other Than System-Sponsor
EJIS ISJ ISR JAIS JIT JMIS JSIS MISQ Total 2001 1 1 4 6 2008 1 1 3 2 7 2015 1 7 3 8 1 4 24 Total 1 9 4 1 15 1 6 37
Only a single dual-perspective article was published in 2001, in JMIS, but 7 dual-perspective articles appeared in 4 journals in 2008, and 7 in 6 journals in 2015. Only 2 journals published multi-perspective articles - EJIS (3, all in 2008) and JMIS (2, both in 2015).
Of the 548 articles, 511 (93%) were on the economic dimension, and 37 (7%) on the social dimension. Not a single article was detected on the environmental dimension. That may sound counter-intuitive given the interest in 'Green IS' and 'Green IT' in recent years. However, most such research is actually on the economic dimension, in that it adopts the system sponsor's perspective and reflects organisations' interest in the cost-savings that can be achieved through green initiatives.
The degree of dominance of the economic dimension declined over the three years, from 98% (2001) to 95% (2008) to 89% (2015). In 2001, all journals except ISR exhibited a 100% economic perspective. In 2015, the range was from 83-85% (JAIS, ISR, MISQ) to 94-95% (EJIS, JIT, JMIS).
In relation to the social dimension, patterns within journals were diverse, with ISR (11) and EJIS (7) publishing about half of all such articles. Across the 3 years, however, each journal published at least 2 such papers, and each published at least 1 in 2015, suggesting a postulate that, despite the small volume of research published on the social dimension, it is widely regarded as legitimate.
As shown in Table 6, there was growth in the count of articles on the social dimension, from 2 (2%) in 2001 (both in ISR), via 10 (5%) in 4 journals in 2008, to 25 (11%) in 2015, in all 8 journals. Topics included impacts of social overload (Maier et al. 2015), skills of smartphone users (Keith et al. 2015), social interaction structures of online communities (Spagnoletti et al. 2015a) and the impact of online social network use on loneliness (Matook et al. 2015).
Table 6: Distribution of the Social Dimension
EJIS ISJ ISR JAIS JIT JMIS JSIS MISQ Total 2001 2 2 2008 5 2 2 1 10 2015 2 2 7 4 1 2 2 5 25 Total 7 2 11 4 3 2 2 6 37
As shown by Table 7, dual-perspective articles were almost all on the economic dimension. The count of multi-perspective papers was too small to support pattern-analysis.
Dual-Perspective (15) [ Economic Dimension (14)
e.g. market operators and traders [ Social Dimension (1)
service providers and service-disadvantaged Multi-Perspective (5) [ Economic Dimension (2)
e.g. employers, education providers, users [ Social Dimension (3), e.g. political debate
This research examined all articles published in leading journals in each of 3 years within a 15-year period. It therefore comprises a series of cross-sectional snapshots, and does not represent a random sample of the population of 15 years of the Basket of 8 journals. The results are therefore authoritative with respect to the years in question, but are not generalisable even across the population of Basket of 8 articles, far less to the IS literature as a whole. All observations made on the basis of the data reported in this article must be interpreted with that caveat in mind.
A further limitation of this research is that its primary focus is, by design, on broad questions about researcher perspectives and the dimensions on which they lie. Hence only tentative observations can be made about specific topic-areas, such as inter-organisational systems, outsourcing, marketer-consumer relationships, and C2C and social media interactions.
The coding guidelines have been applied by the same team that developed them. Although great care was taken, and procedures were adopted to ensure that intra-team consistency was achieved, the protcocol will benefit from examination and application by other teams, and to articles and papers in further publishing venues.
The study delivers information and insights in relation to the cardinality of perspectives adopted by IS researchers, and the extent to which the interests of the system sponsor dominate those of other stakeholders. The study enabled the identification of gaps and opportunities. It provides a basis for the examination of researcher perspective in other journals and in conferences, in particular sectors of industry and government, and in particular research domains. It also identifies the need for research techniques that support dual- and multi-perspective research.
Although it is infeasible to generalise to the population of articles published in the Basket of 8 journals for the 15-year period based on three snapshots widely-separated over time, the data appears to yield the following interpretations:
The dominance of single-perspective research is harmful to the IS discipline, because it limits the contributions that can be made. Even for the favoured stakeholder, it delivers less insight than would be possible if other approaches were adopted. It has little to offer to other stakeholders. By ensuring that a proportion of research effort is invested in studies that adopt a single perspective other than that of the system sponsor, and in dual-perspective work, the discipline can offer greater depth of understanding of phenomena, and greater value to the beneficiaries of the research. Put another way, it is important that the principle of triangulation be applied to the perspectives that researchers adopt.
The dominance of system-sponsor research is harmful to the interests of the other stakeholders in the particular research setting. The dominance of system sponsor perspectives in IS research that studies human individuals and groups is a particular concern.
Further, the dominance of research on the economic dimension raises questions about why IS academics are missing the opportunity to more directly address social and environmental topics. Research questions in these areas can be studied by means of single-perspective research, but a proportion of research effort needs to be invested in dual- and multi-perspective studies if the discipline is to make more effective contributions to policy debates, as proposed by Majchrzak et al. (2016). For example, in the context of online trust, Shankar et al. (2002) point out that different stakeholder perspectives cannot be easily aligned in order to avhieve economic efficiency of the firm given the Òdivergence of interestsÓ of the stakeholders.
It remains an open question as to whether the patterns of dominance revealed by this research are intentional or accidental. It could, for example, be a result of a bandwagon effect, with unconscious and unreflective adoption by later researchers of approaches and attitudes embedded in the work of their predecessors. Alternatively, it may arise from single-minded implementation of what might be perceived as an appropriate 'business school' commitment to the needs of business enterprises.
There are two reasons why such a perception would be inappropriate. The first was discussed above, and relates to the relatively low quality of insight obtained through single-perspective research in comparison with the useful insights that could be delivered using alternative approaches. The other reason, however, strikes deeply to the heart of the question of the role and mission of IS as a discipline.
If IS is to be regarded as an academic discipline, then it would be reasonable to expect a degree of balance in the representation of interests. The current imbalance raises the question as to whether IS academics are in effect operating as IS consultants, but employed by universities. To the extent that the source of funding for academic work is the public purse, a question arises about the ethicality of a strong commitment to the interests of the corporations that produce and apply information systems, at the expense of, and at worst even to the exclusion of, the interests of other organisations and individuals that use those systems and that are otherwise affected by them.
From the viewpoint of practitioners, this study raises the question as to whether business executives and IS practitioners should have greater expectations of research that they fund and that they participate in. By framing the questions asked of academics in a more open manner, business and government could encourage research design to adopt bolder approaches, and deliver greater value.
We also raise a somewhat less conventional question. It is common for IS researchers to engage with business enterprises, but far less common for them to establish and sustain links with other kinds of organisations. We contend that IS researchers would deliver better value to society as a whole if a much broader range of organisations were approaching them and seeking interactions. In addition to government policy agencies, we suggest that bodies that have regional responsibilities, and advocacy organisations for the interests of employees, consumers, welfare recipients and special interest groups, could all much more actively seek to benefit from the efforts of IS academics and the funding provided to them by governments.
This article has assessed the researcher perspectives adopted by over 500 articles in 3 years of the IS discipline's leading journals. It has revealed that several characteristics of research are dominant: adoption of a single perspective (rather than a balance between that and dual- and multi-perspective research); adoption of the system sponsor's perspective (rather than a balance between that and the perspectives of other stakeholders); and perspectives on the economic dimension (rather than a balance between those and perspectives on the social and the currently almost entirely ignored environmental dimension).
The choice of researcher perspective pervades research activities, strongly influencing conception, design, formulation of research questions and expression of results. We contend firstly that choices of researcher perspective should be conscious rather than accidental, and secondly that those choices should be sufficiently diverse. This in turn indicates the need for a richer range of research techniques beyond those currently regarded as being in the mainstream.
[THE CODING GUIDELINES ARE IN A PUBLICLY-ACCESSIBLE REPOSITORY]
[THE CODING SHEETS ARE IN A PUBLICLY-ACCESSIBLE REPOSITORY]
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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.
Robert Davison is a Professor of Information Systems at City University of Hong Kong. He is Editor-in-Chief of both the Information Systems Journal and the Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, and Chair of IFIP WG 9.4.
Wanying Jia holds an M.Sc. from the City University of Hong Kong in Electronic Business and Knowledge Management and a B.Mngt from Shandong University of Science and Technology.
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