The Ethics of Fake Reference

My last post was written in a fit of pique, and understandably someone took issue with part of how I expressed my frustration. Meredith Farkas commented that “To call the student an ‘obvious liar whose intent is to waste my time’ is really awful.” That’s quite possibly true and I should have been more gentle. However, there are other things that are awful as well. Lying is awful. Deception is awful. Using people as unknowing participants in human experimentation is awful. Treating people merely as means to your own ends is awful. Betraying the implied agreement behind a reference query is awful. I opined that sending out students to ask fake reference questions is an ethically dubious practice. Today I would like to elaborate by briefly exploring the issue. I’ll approach the practice from several ethical perspectives and you can decide whether you agree with me.

First, let’s consider the Kantian perspective. You may be familiar with Kant’s categorical imperative, which says that one should act in such a way that one can will the principle behind one’s action to be universal law. Basically, don’t do it unless you think everyone should do it, or in a briefer version of the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by. This principle would, I think, preclude lying, deception, and using people as unknowing participants in some psychological reference experiment. It would also, I think, preclude wasting the time of professional librarians on fake reference questions, just to see how they responded. Would these same students and their professors want to be lied to and deceived in order to further someone else’s ends?

The other part of Kant’s ethics says you should treat people as ends in themselves, and not just as means to your ends. What is the fake reference interaction doing but using the reference librarian as an unknowing means to someone else’s ends? Most people resent being used as merely a means to someone else’s end. It might seem that reference librarians in general are always merely means to someone else’s end, but that’s not the case. If I willingly agree to participate in a certain relationship as a reference librarian, this is different than if I am deceived or manipulated. I’m here to help people answer actual reference questions. My action wills that reference librarians should answer such questions. My action does not, however, will that I be used as an unwilling guinea pig in someone else’s reference experiment. There is an implied contract in a reference transaction. You have a real information need and I help you with it. When that contract is broken by deception, then my part is ended.

Next, let’s consider the utilitarian approach. The utilitarian dictum is that an action (or a rule behind an action, depending on whether one is an act- or a rule-utilitarian) is good if it leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This approach makes it less clear for this situation. Is the greatest happiness for the greatest number achieved by fake reference patrons lying to reference librarians? According to the felicific calculus, does the happiness of the fake reference patrons outweigh the resentment and unhappiness of the manipulated reference librarians?

Or we can expand this more broadly to a consequentialist approach. Instead of just considering happiness as the end, let’s consider the consequences of the action. What good consequences come from the lying and deception? Who benefits by a fake reference transaction? Does the student faking the transaction learn anything? And does this make up for the deception somehow? In my case the participant-observer approach was flawed because I spotted it. Asking an obviously fake question and then upbraiding me for not going along with the charade rankled. Thus, the fake patron didn’t learn how reference questions were answered, but instead learned how I deal with fake patrons trying to manipulate and deceive me. As the fake patron noted, things went quite well at first, but by the end the person was disappointed. We both were.

We should also consider the virtue ethics approach, derived from Aristotelian ethics. In this approach, ethics isn’t so much about rule following or calculating happiness, but about forming certain types of character in people. I think this approach makes more sense in terms of the ethical upbringing of children and the formation of character. We don’t people to have to stop and argue with themselves about whether they should lie or betray others. We want people who tell the truth and don’t betray others as a matter of habit. We want them to have a certain good character. We want people who as a matter of habit don’t deceive others just to obtain their own ends. We want reference librarians who willingly do all they can to answer legitimate reference questions or help with research problems, and we don’t want reference students who go out and lie to librarians. Is this the sort of character we want to develop in future reference librarians? You can probably see where I’m going with this, so I’ll move on.

I’d like to mention one other perspective. In his later work, Martin Heidegger discussed what he called technological thinking. Technological thinking involves considering everything that exists as a tool standing in reserve (bestand) to be used by human beings. This would include not only obvious tools such as hammers, but also the natural world as a whole. It doesn’t matter what happens to chickens or forests, for example, because they are just standing in reserve to be used by us. The ultimate problem with technological thinking is that eventually humans themselves come to be considered as tools or objects standing in reserve to be used by others at their will (consider the phrase “human resources”). This is related to Kant’s objections to considering other people as means to your ends rather than as ends in themselves. The technological thinker views everything and everyone as a tool standing in reserve to be used when appropriate. Thus, the hapless reference librarian becomes merely a tool or a means for the fake reference patron to achieve some other end.

Thus, we have a handful of ethical approaches, and it seems to me they all lead to the conclusion that lies and deception are bad things. Even if under some consequentialist approach one could justify the lies and deception and manipulation by some higher end, what is gained here? Do the fake patrons (or their professors who hand out these assignments) think that some higher end justifies lying to librarians and wasting their time? Do they think that reference librarians are so clueless that we can’t spot the faker? Do they think spotting the faker has no effect on the reference transaction? Do they think that other people are to be used as unwitting means to their own ends? That reference librarians aren’t there to help people with reference queries and research needs, but are just there as a little experimental tools for library school students to play with? Apparently, they do.

If students want to learn how I do reference, I’ll be happy to help (under the rule that it’s a good thing for librarians to willingly help library school students as I was willingly helped by librarians when I was a student). Shadow me. Interview me. Analyze my chat transcripts. See how I act when people approach me at the desk. Watch me from afar or a-close all you want. Read the reference behavioral guidelines that I helped write. But don’t lie to me and try to deceive me.

If however, after all this, you or your professor decide that your ends somehow justify using reference librarians as your tools and you still choose to lie and try to deceive them because they’re not worthy of respect as busy professionals or even as human beings and ends in themselves, then you should be a much better liar than this person was. Practice that lying and deception until you have it down to a fine art. It won’t make you much of a reference librarian or even a decent human being, but at least the librarian won’t be left feeling manipulated and betrayed and you might achieve whatever end you think justifies your means.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Fake Reference

  1. That’s not to mention that most (all?) universities have some sort of Human Participants Research Protocol requiring informed consent of research subjects.
    Profs encouraging their students to bypass those requirements for an assignment seems a bit fishy to me.

  2. Actually, that reminds me of an incident a few weeks ago. During my evening reference desk shift a student came up to me at the desk and asked if she could quietly observe other students in the library using that catalogue for some sort of usability project for a course.
    Of course I said no and pointed her to the York HPRP page. And suggested that she might just want to use family and friends as guinea pigs.

  3. John, I hadn’t even thought about that, but yes, I’m sure Princeton has such rules. I know there’s a policy that students in the psych dept performing research on human subjects have to get permission and conform to NIH guidelines or something like that.

  4. I’m unable to locate your reference behavioral guidelines. I’ve recently enrolled in an online study course in library science and would appreciate your comments on protocol for the research desk. For instance, in dealing with live patron vs. e-mail and/or telephone, do you suggest certain guidlines in responding? Thank you.

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