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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access August 30, 2023

Ethical Issues of Human Information Behaviour and Human Information Interactions

  • Jela Steinerová ORCID logo EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Information Science


The objectives of the study are to determine the main ethical factors related to human information interactions. The main research question was: What is the perception of ethical issues of information work and future topics of information ethics in digital environment? A brief analysis of related ethical issues of information is presented. The main applied methodology was a Delphi study on information ethics with selected experts from Slovakia and Czech Republic. The data were analysed with the use of mixed methods of discourse and content analyses and conceptual modelling. We present results of the discourse analyses (first round, 19 experts; discussion, 6 experts). Results are interpreted with regard to the ethical issues of work with digital information, main ethical dilemmas of the use of advanced technologies, and values of information. Results are visualised in three conceptual maps. A final conceptual model represents the epistemic consensus of experts, including social and cultural rules, value tensions between man and technologies, and utility, truth, and objectivity of information. We propose to include the identified ethical factors into models of human information behaviour. Recommendations for practice focus on value-sensitive design of digital services and products in the intercultural contexts of information literacy, education, science, workplaces, and everyday information use.

1 Introduction

Information ethics is a multidisciplinary and intercultural area of information science providing analyses of ethical values of information, norms and rules of information use, and ethical issues of the use of information technologies and artificial intelligence (AI). In this context, we designed a study focused on ethical challenges of digital information use as part of a larger research project. Information ethics has been shaped by an international community of scholars both in descriptive contexts (seeking understanding, virtues, and values of information) and normative contexts (focused mainly on rules, norms, contexts, and consequences of human information interactions). The purpose of this article is to explore ethical issues of human information interactions and present results of a Delphi study of experts from Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The main research question asks what are the perceptions of ethical factors of human information behaviour and interactions by selected experts. Results are visualised in several conceptual maps and a model of ethical information interactions. The study should contribute to conceptualisation of ethical issues of information and include the identified ethical factors into models of human information behaviour and information literacy. Results should support ethically informed production, sharing and use of digital information, ethical reasoning, and moral imagination. The structure of the article is as follows: Section 2 presents related research and literature review and Section 3 focuses on a Delphi study, including methodology and analyses. In Section 4, findings and results are visualized in conceptual maps. In Section 5, the final conceptual model of ethical information interactions is explained and in Section 6 we present the conclusions. Recommendations for practice relate to value-sensitive design of information services in the contexts of education, science, workplaces, or everyday information use.

2 Related Research

Information ethics has been developed in information science as a transdisciplinary area composed of library ethics, computer ethics, media ethics, and human moral psychology. It is represented mainly by works of two philosophers and information scientists; Capurro (2005, 2019) and Floridi (2013, 2020) who have analysed main ethical interdisciplinary topics of privacy, access to digital information, accuracy of information, intellectual property, online communication and care, including special perspectives of the ethical regulations of the “infosphere” and “onlife” principles of human information behaviour. Other researchers have refined this research agenda within the concepts of information landscapes, intercultural differences, and values of information. This has been reflected in a number of published works and monographs, including recent synthesising ideas (Burgess & Knox, 2019; Burnett & Burnett, 2019; Ess, 2014; Friedman & Hendry, 2019; Kelly & Bielby, 2016). In this article, we consider ethical issues of information in the framework of human information interactions (Fidel, 2012; Marchionini, 2008; Capurro and Pingel, 2002; Steinerová, 2020) understood as mutual adaptations between people, information, and information technologies in the contexts of information production, sharing, and use. Relationships between people and information are manifested in the ethical contexts related to decision-making, problem solving, reasoning, and learning as part of information behaviour and information literacy. The ubiquitous information environment has resulted in several dimensions of human information interactions, namely the cognitive, social, affective, technological, ethical and intercultural, political, or ecological dimensions. In this article, we focus mainly on social and ethical dimensions of human information interactions in order to better understand the ethical factors of human information behaviour and information literacy.

Our preliminary bibliometric analyses of published works in Web of Science (WoS) and Scopus databases in the years 1988–2021 covered 461 records in WoS and 653 records in Scopus databases based on extracted keywords related to information ethics. These analyses were completed in September 2022 and the results visualised main topics, concepts, core authors, and trends of the information ethics studies in a series of bibliometric maps. We have identified three time periods significant for the development of information ethics together with the main authors and their works. The periods include the following years of publishing: 1. 1986–2000, 2. 2000–2013, and 3. 2014–2021. We have confirmed a thematic core of information ethics studies based on the concepts of privacy, accuracy, copyright, ethics of AI, library and business (professional) ethics, power, care, trust, information literacy, and online communication. As for the trends, our analyses confirmed new emerging topics, such as data ethics, research and publishing ethics, informational privacy in social media, and also information values, diversity, and ethics of AI. Information ethics studies and human information interactions have not been sufficiently mutually informed and integrated.

As for the conceptual background, we can regard ethics as a system of morals and rules of behaviour, implicit or codified (written) and accepted by a social group (Bawden & Robinson, 2022). Information ethics is represented by a system of values and moral rules of behaviour in contexts of information interactions in the information environment (Steinerová & Ondrišová, 2020; Froelich, 2004). Floridi (2018) distinguished between hard ethics (comes before law and can shape legislation) and soft ethics (comes after the law, related to the best application in different cases which cannot be involved in law). Information ethics is connected to informational governance as a set of policies, standards, processes, and good practices applied to information management. Floridi (2018) in his model presents the interrelationships among soft and hard ethics, governance and regulations, which are complementary. Standards and codes of good practices are written regulations which are not regulated by law. Information ethics is also connected to digital environment and digital sovereignty with regard to regulations of digital information environment. More detailed foundations of information ethics are presented in such related works as Bawden and Robinson (2022), Burgess and Knox (2019), Floridi (2018, 2020), Graff, Quiñones-Riegos, Scott, and Senior (2020), Kelly and Bielby (2016), and Rubin and Rubin (2020). It is understood that the most significant topics of information ethics at present are ethics of informational privacy, data ethics, and ethics of AI.

Generally, information ethics studies cover both theoretical, philosophical reflections (critical analyses), and normative frameworks connected mainly to education and information literacy. The starting point is a system of moral values in the context of human information interactions. The authors usually apply the frameworks of philosophical ethics, including deontology (duties and rules), consequentialism (utilitarianism, consequences of decision-making), character/virtue ethics (general values), contractual ethics (social contract, justice), or ethics of communication and ethics of caring. The most significant context for inclusion of ethical factors to human information behaviour and information literacy is the socio-cultural paradigm of studies, in which the authors emphasise social essence of information interactions and personal and communitarian experience. Another ethical framework is represented by the concept of information ecologies which can help understand the complexity of ethical and cultural factors of digital information use as part of human information behaviour and information literacy related to the use of information sources, digital places, and information technologies. Information ecologies are dynamic and evolving places of intersections of people, values, information, and technologies.

Ethical challenges of information work are usually connected not only with studies of information literacy, human information behaviour, and information management, but also with the information society and information environment. Recently, the authors have focused on the use of intelligent technologies and AI (Stahl, 2021) and value-sensitive design (Friedman & Hendry, 2019; Friedman and Freier, 2005). Some empirical studies used not only methodologies of case studies (Buchanan & Henderson, 2008; Burgess & Knox, 2019), but also empirical studies in larger projects (Fuchs, 2016; Stahl, 2016; Rusho and Raban, 2019). Innovative methodologies (e.g. Burnett & Burnett, 2019; Hoppen, Levin-Borger, & Rockembach, 2019) point to complexity of social and discursive background of information ethics studies. A Delphi study (Townsend, Hofer, Hanick, & Brunetti, 2016) can be an appropriate methodology for dealing with complexity of information literacy and information ethics.

Although there are many information literacy frameworks and models which considered ethical factors (e.g. ACRL, 2016; Forster, 2013, 2017; Jacobson & Mackey, 2016; Secker & Coonan, 2013), theoretical conceptualisations of information ethics as part of information literacy still need more attention. Floridi (2013) calls for more studies focused on ethics of information, but his work is not directly related to human information interactions and information literacy. However, he is concerned with regulation of new information environment, privacy, data ethics, and AI (Floridi, 2018, 2020).

Results of the analyses of published works based on several topic maps are visualized in Table 1. It describes an evolution of information ethics topic from 1986 and before (1970s) to 2021 with regard to library ethics, ethics of information, and ethics of information systems. We have identified three main periods of published works focused on information ethics, and major authors and concepts are identified within these periods. The first period includes the year 1986 and before 1999 (the milestone is the establishment of the Journal of Information Ethics by Robert Hauptman in 1986), the second period includes the years 1999–2012 (the milestone is the establishment of the International Centre for Information Ethics by Rafael Capurro), and the third period is the years 2013–2021 (the milestone is the monograph by Luciano Floridi on ethics of information in 2013). At the conceptual level, we could identify the evolution from the separate concepts of library ethics and ethics of information systems to ethics of information, ethics of online communication, media ethics, ethics of AI and to the complex concepts of ethics of library and information science (LIS) and information and digital ethics. The topic of information ethics is highly context-sensitive and intercultural as proved by the analysed works. The context as a category has lately been explored in relation to information behaviour (Agarwal, 2022). The global and local contexts of information ethics are interwoven in published works, as well as in our empirical study. A certain degree of thematic fragmentation has been noted within the topic, which is typical for present information science development (Vakkari, Chang, & Järvelin, 2022).

Table 1

Three periods of development of information ethics, authors and dominant concepts

Concepts First period (1986 and before to 1999) Second period (2000–2012) Third period (2013–2021)
Library ethics, ethics of information systems, computer ethics, information ethics, ethical theory of information, and ethics of LIS Martha Smith, Robert Mason, Toni Carbo, Robert Hauptman, Thomas Froelich, Joseph Goguen, Helen Nissenbaum, Richard Severson, Bynum and Ward, W. J. Orlikowski, Rafael Capurro, Luciano Floridi
Ethics of online communication, ethics of information, moral literacy, information, media ethics and digital ethics Rafael Capurro, Luciano Floridi, Buchanan and Henderson, Toni Carbo and M. Smith, Nancy Tuana, Himma and Tavani, David Johnson, Bynum and Ward, Don Fallis, Paul Sturges, Helen Nissenbaum, V. Zwass, W. J. Orlikowski, Charles Ess, George W. Reynolds, UNESCO, IFLA
Ethics of information, ethics of AI, data ethics, information ethics, value-sensitive design, and digital ethics Luciano Floridi, Rafael Capurro, Charles Ess, B. C. Stahl, W. J. Orlikowski, G. W. Reynolds, John Rawls, Don Fallis, Kelly and Bielby, Ch. Fuchs, David McMenemy, G. Burnett and Burnett, B. Friedman and D. Hendry, Nerurkar et al., Hoppen et al., J. T. F. Burgess and E. Knox, Jonathan Furner, Jens-Erik Mai, R. E. Rubin and R. G. Rubin, Graff et al.

For the context of this study, we have considered especially the topics of ethics of information, online communication, and information literacy. Newer information literacy studies have focused on information literacy as an experience and considered ethical dimensions of information use in the innovative frameworks of information landscapes (Lloyd, 2021), informed learning (Bruce, Sommerville, Stoodeley, & Partridge, 2013; Bruce, 2016), information discernment (Walton, Pointon, Barker, Turner, & Wilkinson, 2021), information mapping (Whitworth, 2020), or ubiquitous online search and paradoxes of information literacy (Haider & Sundin, 2019, 2022). An important contribution is represented by an earlier concept of moral literacy by Tuana (2007). The author presented a model of moral literacy composed of ethics sensitivity, ethical reasoning skills, and moral imagination. Ethics sensitivity is understood as ethics spotting, moral intensity, and identification of virtues/values. Ethical reasoning skills are based on ethical frameworks, assessing facts, and assessing values. Components of moral literacy are represented by steps in the circles, including identification of ethical issues, determining moral values, assessing moral intensity, assessing facts, considering consequences, identification of relevant virtues, ascertaining relevant duties, considering issues of care, assessing values, and use of moral imagination.

The ANCIL model – a new curriculum for information literacy model (Secker, 2011; Secker & Coonan, 2013) identified ten strands of a learner who has his skills, subject knowledge, advanced information handling, and the ability of learning to learn. One of the strands is the ethical dimension of information for higher education which is based on avoiding plagiarism, awareness of copyright and intellectual property rights, and sharing information properly.

Another important example of ethical factors included in the models of information literacy is the concept of metaliteracy (MacKey & Jacobson, 2019). Metaliteracy is a new pedagogical model aimed at preparation of students to apply critical thinking, identify fake news, metacognition, and lifelong learning. Its four domains are the cognitive, behavioural, affective, and metacognitive domains, and it is characterized by participatory principles of digital information use, by collaboration, reflection, adaptations, and by open, productive, civic-minded, informed learning. The four goals of metaliteracy include active evaluation of the content and one’s own biases, engagement with all intellectual property ethically and responsibly, production and sharing information in collaborative and participatory environment, and developing learning strategies to meet lifelong personal and professional goals. The second goal emphasised the ethical dimensions of production and use of information, especially “differentiation between original responsible production, sharing and remixing of content” (MacKey & Jacobson, 2019, p. 25). It is important to distinguish between personal and public information and make ethically informed decisions in the information environment.

The three examples of recent models of information literacy put emphasis on ethical dimensions of information related to decision-making in information use, developing of moral imagination, ethical awareness, avoiding plagiarism, and cognitive assessment of virtues and values of information. However, the contexts of the models are different: from general processes of ethical assessment, to higher education and participation and collaboration in digital information environment, including both production and information use in social networks. Several innovative frameworks and models of human information behaviour have called for new ways of conceptualisation of the intersubjective principles of human information interactions in ubiquitous digital information environment and online searching, such as information landscapes (Lloyd, 2010), information mapping (Whitworth, 2020), value-sensitive design with moral imagination (Friedman & Hendry, 2019), or information ecologies (Nardi & O’Day, 1999; Steinerová, 2010), and others.

The ethical dimension represents an important implicit part of the social background of human information behaviour and information literacy. Social and cultural environments are usually contexts for social perception and social diffusion of information (Karlova and Fisher, 2014; Ruokolainen and Widén, 2020; Lewandowsky et al., 2017), which help people discern accurate information, mis/disinformation, or fake news. Models and studies of human information behaviour and information literacy should take into the account not only the ethically informed information use (the ethical awareness of information environment) and the ethically informed information production, including knowledge of rules, tools, and norms but also informal (tacit) ethical principles of online communication and information sharing.

3 Ethical Contexts of information Work: A Delphi Study

In 2020, we designed a research project based on a methodology of a Delphi study which represents an appropriate methodological perspective for handling the complexity of ethical challenges of information in the digital environment, including the ethics of AI. The aims of the study were to understand the perception of ethical issues of information work in digital environment by selected experts. Although ethical concerns are not new, ethical challenges and dilemmas have been more visible in academic production especially in recent years, when we have to face dis/misinformation, fake news, false theories, and other information pathologies as part of human information interactions. The research questions were articulated as follows: What are the main ethical challenges related to information interactions in the digital environment? Which ethical factors will be significant for development of information ethics in future?

The study was undertaken in the years 2021–2022. It was divided into three different phases, namely a pilot study, the main online survey, and an online discussion. We have followed main methodological rules of Delphi studies, e.g. the data were collected in writing, panel members were given anonymity, we have tried to produce a consensus of experts, but special proposals were also noted. Minor modifications in the structure were applied in the process (Pickard, 2013). Informed consent was obtained electronically from the participants. The conducted research is not related either to human or animal use. A pilot study included four experts from the disciplines of information science, journalism, marketing communication, and computer science and was run in December 2021. Results of the pilot study were published elsewhere (Steinerová, 2022). The main study (the first round) included 19 selected experts from different areas of humanities and social sciences, including philosophy, psychology, management, information science, political science, AI, social informatics, and also library managers of academic libraries and information managers of computer companies. The time span of the survey was from January to May 2022. The criteria for selection of experts were based mainly on their experience with ethical issues of information, including related disciplines of philosophy, social informatics, social and political science, management, and psychology. Most of the participants came from academic professions (11.58%), and the rest were managers (5.26%). LIS was represented by five experts; five experts came from informatics and social informatics; four experts were library managers; and one expert came from an IT company. Six experts were from the Czech Republic and 13 from Slovakia: 13 women and 6 men. At the institutional level, the dominating institution was an academic institution (13 experts, 68%).

3.1 Methodology and Analyses of the Discourse

The methodological design of the study was based on three questions in digital space based on prior theoretical and conceptual analyses. These questions were articulated as follows: 1. Which three ethical issues do you regard as most important with regard to the position and development of information ethics at present and why? 2. Which three ethical dilemmas with regard to the use of AI in information work do you find as most significant (state your reasons for your opinion)? 3. Which three values of information do you regard as decisive for the ethical use of digital information and why?

The second round of the study was based on an online discussion of six experts in September 2022, coming from AI, social informatics, management, and information science; three experts were from the Czech Republic and three from Slovakia: three men and three women. The main question was articulated as follows: What is, in your opinion, the future of information ethics and which tools and provisions do you find as most important?

The data were analysed by three pairs of independent researchers with the use of qualitative data analyses and conceptual modelling so that we could ensure the validity of results. In this respect, the main resulting categories were discussed with participants from the study in the final online discussion (six experts).

The methodology of a Delphi study can be regarded as considering both the qualitative and quantitative perspectives; it represents the mixed methods research. In the analytical part, we applied content analyses, qualitative analyses of data, discourse analyses, constant comparative analyses, categorisation, and conceptual modelling. Results of the analyses were visualised in several conceptual models and later aggregated at a higher level of visual representations. A major drawback of the Delphi study is not only the difference in conceptual levels of experts in discussing complex issues, but also the subjectivity of interpretations. However, our methodology can be regarded as rather innovative in the approach to the complexity of information ethics, as we combined bibliometric analyses, content analyses, a Delphi study, discourse analyses, and conceptual modelling.

4 Findings of the Study

Results of the analyses represent an epistemic consensus of the participants of the study and are interpreted in the following text related to the three components of the design of the study. These components include main ethical issues of digital information, main ethical challenges of the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and AI, and the three main values of information.

4.1 Ethical Issues of Work with Digital Information

The expressed epistemic consensus of experts with regard to main ethical issues of digital information were privacy and (protection) of personal data, benefits and risks of ICT and AI, and dis/misinformation. The resulting categories are visualised in Figure 1 and represent the social representations of the ethical challenges of digital information. Privacy and protection of personal data were often related to security of information interactions, including different activities, from creation to searching and use of information. The challenge is to find the limits between the private and the public and that:

…there is an unsolved dilemma between the right to information and the right to privacy in digital environment. (R2)

Figure 1 
                  Main issues of information ethics: a map of the categories of the discourse.
Figure 1

Main issues of information ethics: a map of the categories of the discourse.

The resulting categories confirmed the complexity of human information interactions, especially within the dimension of social impact of information technologies. Some experts called for new epistemic and ethical frameworks of information interactions. Other experts emphasised the values of information for human rights, justice, privacy, and intercultural contexts. Human values of welfare, freedom, trust, or autonomy were considered. For example, R19 states the following:

Understanding different cultural contexts – the examination of the concepts of the common good, transparency, security, and the control of technology by people – is necessary because it is different in different regions of the world.

It is also worth mentioning that the participants often pointed to social and cultural conflicts which have emerged as part of information ethics in the digital environment, mainly risks for children in online networks. Some of them mentioned the issue of the “information asymmetry” – manifested by a lack of social consensus among people when following the rules of digital information use. R18 expressed the following:

We pay attention to the problems which are caused by inaccurate information (misinformation) with consequences for the levelling of trust for social institutions as well as the political systems.

Some experts highlighted the decline of social institutions and the fact that common ethical frameworks were no longer working. This can lead not only to social challenges of inequality, injustice, and unethical decisions, but also to the issues of identity, accountability, and informed consent.

The main idea of the discourse of participants related to the most significant ethical issues of information was based on relationships between people and technologies. Several concerns were expressed with regard to the misuse of technologies and information for consumer business. Further concerns were related to cybersecurity, the “toxic” use of information (R15), or cyber-bullying. Issues of anxiety and fear of technologies were mentioned (including the “fear of missing-out”), while pragmatic concerns remain. R7 stated the following:

I hope that technologies, when they misuse our weaknesses, will teach us what is really important in our lives… (relationships with people, sense-making in life, development of oneself, and helping the vulnerable).

Several proposals for solutions were also indicated as part of the answers of experts. They emphasised mainly education, information literacy, and digital literacy. Most significant proposals for handling the issues of information ethics included protection of personal data (privacy), intellectual property rights (ownership, anti-plagiarism), and detection of dis/misinformation (verification of information, fact-checking).

4.2 Main Ethical Dilemmas: Impact of Information Technologies and AI

As part of main ethical dilemmas, the experts emphasised the impact of advanced information technologies on human life and human information interactions; bias of algorithms and online platforms (freedom from social and technological bias); and social control, management and political and power structures, including freedom and democracy.

The analysis of the discourse with regard to the second question resulted in the following emergent categories: a conflict of values, misuse of AI and information technologies, bias in evaluation of data, issues of decision-making, responsibility of people and accountability of ICT, limitations of AI development, and commercial bias. The resulting categories are visualized in Figure 2. The main issue is the conflict of values between human and technological components of human information interactions. Experts mentioned a wide range of conflicting values, including privacy, autonomy, transparency of technological features, universal usability, and information security. This is exemplified by the social and epistemic values related to threats of simplification of human information interactions by technological features, or the evaluation of people by algorithms (banks, human resources, etc.). This statement by R16 is an example of these concerns:

The question of the potential political/power misuse of artificial intelligence in work with data and information has emerged – e.g. in some systems of assessment or in systems of state control. As an example, we can mention the ‘normative evaluation of citizens’, defined as a general evaluation of the ‘morals’ of a person or ‘the ethical integrity’ of people … which has been established in China.

Figure 2 
                  Ethical dilemmas in the use of AI and ICT: a map of the categories of the discourse.
Figure 2

Ethical dilemmas in the use of AI and ICT: a map of the categories of the discourse.

Some experts reflected on the issue of social inclusion of technologies. The use of AI and ICT is not value-neutral, it can lead to value tensions between freedom and equality; decision-making and responsibility; public interest or protection of individuals; social risks and social benefits.

For example, R7 put it in this way:

Freedom or equality. This is an old problem of democracy, which has been deepened by AI and technologies. What is more important: freedom, which can lead to some advantages over others, or equality, which bears some restrictions of freedom in the interest of freedom?

Another concern was expressed in relation to a new “consumer” model in the digital environment by online platforms and international corporations. R2 states the following:

I have a feeling that people are not well informed about the fact that no services are offered for free and that in the background data has been gathered about the movements of people, and that no one knows in what ways the data is going to be used…

Several threats of AI and ICT use were also expressed, either in the context of personal data or social control and information management. The question is, what this means for developers of AI systems and environmental sustainability. This was expressed by R11 as follows:

An important question is the “question zero” – the “red lines” in the development and implementation of AI systems. The question is which areas should have the development of AI systems banned and how this decision should be considered in the context of the risks and benefits of the applications.

The important contexts of social conflicts and value tensions related to the use of AI and ICT were identified as education, cognitive development, and threats of decline of cognitive abilities. Further conflicts and dilemmas were exemplified by the accountability and decision-making of autonomous systems, e-health systems, and algorithms of big data (technological and social bias).

Main ethical dilemmas of the use of ICT and AI were recognized as value conflicts (tensions), which can be represented not only by an individual level (protection of personal data, evaluation of personal profiles), but also by social levels embedded in technological features of communication, information sharing, and decision-making. This leads to the issues of responsibility, mediation of information, misuse, and the fear of ICT (e.g. fear of missing out).

4.3 Values of Information

The three main values of information were represented by the concepts of utility, truthfulness, and objectivity/credibility of information. Main resulting categories of the discourse included the categories of human responsibility, critical thinking, and verification of information. The values of information can be divided into the epistemic and social values. Less frequent categories were the topicality and novelty of information. The most frequently mentioned values of information are represented in Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 3 
                  Values of information in digital information use: a map of the categories of the discourse.
Figure 3

Values of information in digital information use: a map of the categories of the discourse.

Figure 4 
                  Values of information in digital information and digital technology use.
Figure 4

Values of information in digital information and digital technology use.

The epistemic level of values of information is represented by cognitive development and knowledge growth, usually related to relevance and information literacy of individuals. The social level of values of information means mainly usefulness/utility of information related to decision-making and problem solving, to following rules, trust, cultures, and responsibility in social communication and information sharing. Thus, the utility of information can be divided into the subjective utility and the social utility of information use. For example, R16 articulated this perception of values of information in this way:

…relevance of information, utility, and efficiency (its pragmatic and real usability in a certain area or situation).

The contexts of verification of information and critical thinking were considered as most important for values of information. Some experts expressed this situation as the “distance” from information, or sense-making and rational reasoning. It is also important that information literacy is here connected with the ability to recognize the “toxic” content of information. Another context of values of information was articulated as the “activity”, e.g. R12 states the following:

Activity – not a passive approach to information, but participation in the identification of and dealing with ethical dilemmas, an interest in information, processes, and the results of ethical dilemmas and situations.

Trustworthiness of information was related to responsibility in information sharing and use as part of values of information. Values of information can reflect the crisis of trust in society, social justice, or the accountability of algorithms. One participant related the values of information to “taking consideration” to human dignity/welfare in digital environment as part of human responsibility when using the information. R19 stated the following:

By the diffusion of information in the digital environment, we have an impact on a number of people. Sometimes it can be difficult to assess the impact of our activities in the electronic environment, which is why we should be considerate in every situation.

The value of truth of information is often connected with contexts of cognitive development, learning, and trust in the utilized information resources, as confirmed by R18 in the following:

Truthfulness and trust (reason: because I use information with a special purpose, I attempt to get information which is truthful and can be reliable with the provision of the right guidance/solutions). This is why I try to use official sources: government, local governance institutions, distinguished publishing houses, and journals.

The same was expressed by another expert (R8) as follows:

Trust – because of the current critical absence of trust across the whole society, i.e. in relation to other people, social institutions, and state and international corporations. A lack of trust has an influence on the decline of sensible relationships and society as a whole. The perception of the trustworthiness of the offered information is critical for the acceptance, taking in, and further use of information, etc.

Further values of information, as mentioned by participants, represented mainly novelty, openness, accessibility, easy access, user-orientation (universal usability), and equal access for diverse communities. The most interesting from this spectrum of values of information is the “context-dependence of information,” as articulated by R7 in the following:

Contextuality, system-dependence: information should be included into a sensible whole, otherwise it is disintegrated and not applicable.

The same values were appreciated by R3 as follows:

Inclusion into the context and structure of prior knowledge: contribution to the ‘public bonum’ – the principle of openness and indiscrimination.

Another value of information was recognized as the interest in information (motivation, activity) and participation in supporting ethics and the accessibility of information. Generally, the dominating values of information in the discourse of experts were the values of truth at individual and social levels. The resulting categories of the discourse analysis with respect to values of information confirmed knowledge of prior similar studies which identified social perception, emotions, motivated reasoning, and social diffusion of information in digital environment. Most significant ethical issues of values of information in digital environment are mainly discernment of dis/misinformation in information sharing in communities. As for the information environment, the most “polluted” environments are informal social networks offering a lot of false information, dis/misinformation, or hoaxes. Generally, the values of information were composed mainly of its utility and truthfulness which are embedded in contexts of critical thinking and verification of information. Critical thinking is regarded as part of information literacies and digital literacies. Verification of information can be related to new value-added services of libraries and value-sensitive design of systems.

5 Ethical Information Interactions

Based on the three components identified in the results of the study, we have developed a final, synthesised model of social representations of ethical information interactions (Figure 5). The model shows the interconnected, nested components of social representations of information ethics, namely the social rules and intercultural contexts, the conflict of values between advanced information technologies and people, and the main values of information appreciated by experts, i.e. the utility, truth, and objectivity of information. The lines which guide the identified social representations in the bottom part of the model visualise the main contexts and components of the information process. The first line shows the most common contexts of ethical information interactions such as education, research, organisations, workplaces, and everyday life. The second line represents the ethical perspectives of the information process, i.e. the ethical use, ethical production/creation, and the ethical communication of information. The model represents the epistemic consensus of participants of the Delphi study. Its limitations are related to subjectivity of interpretations. As a means for validation, we have applied two independent analyses of different data, reviews by selected participants, and an online group discussion.

Figure 5 
               Social representations of ethical information interactions.
Figure 5

Social representations of ethical information interactions.

The concept of ethical information interactions means mutual interconnections among people, technologies, and information and values between the social and technological parts. The main ethical challenges of ethical information interactions are social and cultural rules in the digital environment, which can be not only explicit (in codices or guidelines) but also implicit, embedded in cultures, traditions, and personal contexts (maps, information landscapes). The ethical awareness of people can help develop ethical reasoning and moral imagination as related to participation and production of digital information. The values of utility, truth, and objectivity of information can shape the quality of ethical information interactions in future. Metacognitive components of information literacy, including self-efficacy, can help strengthen the ethical critical thinking and verification of information in social media. In future, the interconnection of human intervention and advanced ICT can help develop ethical information interactions and avoid the cognitive, social, and technological bias. More attention should be paid to moral literacy, ethics of algorithms, and personal and communitarian “ethical information landscapes”. Value-added services of academic libraries, digital libraries, and information literacy courses can apply the concept of ethical information interactions. The common ground for future is the cultivation of ethical sensitivity of the information society.

6 Conclusions

Our study has found that the perception of ethical challenges of human information interactions by selected experts is related to the issues of social and cultural rules and the inclusion of advanced ICT and AI into human life and that the main values of information are utility, truthfulness, and credibility/objectivity. The ethical factors of social contexts, conflicts of values, and truth of information should be involved into new models of human information interactions. Results of the study can be transferred to other contexts of information research. For future, we have identified the need to deepen the aspects of ethical sensitivity in society. The experts have confirmed the crisis of ethical issues of information in the discussion. As a result, we have proposed the concept of ethical information interactions as a background for future conceptual and empirical studies. We propose to include the main recognized ethical factors of social rules, value tensions, and values of utility and truth into models of human information interactions. Ethical information interactions are marked by ethically informed information use, sharing and communication, and production of information in digital environment. Future development will integrate closer technological and social components of ethical information use into the interconnected information interactions. The value-sensitive design confirmed possibilities of cultural responsiveness, navigating value tensions, and analyses of stakeholders and communities. Human values are brought into design, services, ubiquitous online searching, or information literacy courses. In the ethical information interactions, we can engage productively with human values and can follow the explicit or implicit social rules. Interconnections of values of utility, objectivity, and truthfulness of information should gain more attention for support of digital life of people in theory, methodology, and practice.

This study has confirmed that ethical factors can be included into modelling of human information behaviour and information literacy in new ways, with the emphasis on contexts of education and information literacy. Apart from critical thinking and verification of information, these models should pay attention to metacognitive components (metaliteracy) and the issues of ethical sensitivity, awareness, and moral literacy. Future studies can specify not only the details of ethical information interactions, e.g. emotions, cognitive bias, bias of algorithms and AI, but also the processes of social perception and social diffusion of information. An important component of ethical information interactions is represented by categorisation of information as part of social perception, especially the discernment of accurate information, disinformation, and misinformation. One of the main challenges for future studies of ethical information interactions in digital environment is the concept of context (Agarwal, 2022). Social and cultural contexts, time, and information environments can modify the categorisation of information from accurate information to dis/misinformation and the interpretations of ethical information use and values of information.

The framework of information ecologies could help re-design models of human information interactions towards more ethically informed information use and production. Information ecologies mainly mean not only efficient information flows, communication, adaptations, re-use of information, and socio-technological evolution, but also cleaning and organisation of the information environment and protection from information pollution and pathologies (e.g. information overload) (Steinerová, 2010, 2018). In this context, we propose to develop value-sensitive design of information eco-systems and digital libraries, products, and services. This means explicit modelling of values of information for special communities of users, related to features of ubiquitous online information environments. In line with findings of our study, we propose the value-sensitive design of information literacy courses and education towards more ethically informed use of information as part of learning and ethical information interactions.

Future development of information ethics studies can be developed in several innovative frameworks related not only to advanced ICT and AI, but also to new models of ethical information interactions. Following our introductory bibliometric analyses, we can confirm that new interconnected multidisciplinary topics are emerging, such as data ethics, moral and digital literacy, ethical sensitivity, ethics of participation and collaboration, ethics of design of AI systems and digital services, privacy and cybersecurity in social media, trust, creativity, ethical information management, ethically driven education, information diversity, moral imagination, and values of human information interactions. Ethical information interactions are manifested by several dimensions of human information behaviour and information literacy, namely the affective, cognitive, social, cultural, intercultural, or metaliterate dimensions. Integrative socio-cognitive, socio-cultural, and socio-technological models can be most significant for including more contexts and ethical factors into human information interactions in future. The information process should be shaped by moral imagination. We recommend that the goals of theoretical development and practical studies should be enriched by the ethically informed information use, communication, and production as part of the concept of ethical information interactions.


The study was developed as part of the research project VEGA 1/0360/21 Social representations of the ethical challenges of digital information revolution. The author expresses her thanks to all colleagues who helped with the design of the study, bibliometric and qualitative analyses of data, and visualisation of results, especially to Mirka Pastierová. The author also thanks the participants of the Delphi study: professors, information managers, librarians, and ICT specialists.

  1. Conflict of interest: The author states no conflict of interests.

  2. Data availability statement: The datasets generated during this study are available in an internal repository of the project VEGA 1/0360/21, but restrictions apply to the availability of the data and are available from the author upon request with permission of the Comenius University in Bratislava and the project VEGA (Ministry of Education of the Slovak Republic).


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Received: 2023-06-15
Revised: 2023-08-01
Accepted: 2023-08-03
Published Online: 2023-08-30

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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