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This review discusses the paper presented by Karim, Zamzuri and Nor regarding their work relating Internet ethics in an academic setting and the so-called theory "Big-5 Model of Personality" and how it helps to predict computer use behaviours among students in Malaysia. The said study was a research done on Malaysian college students relating the Big-5 Model to Internet ethics and entitled, "Exploring the Relationship between Internet Ethics in University Students and the Big-5 Model of Personality" published in Computers and Education which is a peer-reviewed academic journal (Karim, Zamzuri & Nor 2009, p. 86).
It is well known that the rapid adoption of Internet usage is increasing in our everyday lives such as in the workplace, in social networking, in commerce, in banking and importantly in the academe. The widespread use of the Internet in schools is furthered along because it is a very valuable tool for the educational process such as research for term papers, for example. It has been used increasingly to promote team work as well, such as college students given some assignments that require group work and close coordination among the members.
The rapid use of the Internet has also engendered many unethical practices today such as fraudulence, plagiarism, outright falsification and fudging by data by the students. There is clearly a need to articulate a set of ethical behaviours to prevent such practices becoming widespread and entrenched in student behaviours. Although the study's authors had done an admirable job in proposing the use of the predictive Big 5 Model in an academic setting, the study has some flaws which can be best addressed in future studies to be undertaken by other similarly-inclined researchers and hopefully apply the findings in other settings as well.
The study being critiqued here concerns the results of a survey (self-report) done on 5 different college departments in the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM). The students in this public university were made to answer a questionnaire that links the extent to which these students engaged in unethical behaviour with regards to their Internet usage. The total number of student-respondents was 270 but only 252 returned filled-out forms were very useful for the purposes of this study and the remainder of 18 responses discarded (ibid. p. 88).
The whole point of this study which is quite pioneering in its novel use of the Big 5 Model is how unethical Internet behaviour can be reliably predicted based on the five factors of personality or traits that sociologist's term as agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extra-version and intellectual openness. The use of this Big 5 Model is documented quite well in other studies related to other fields such as business management and consumer behaviour buying patterns and decision making. This study by Karim et al. is an attempt to fill out some identified research gaps. As of now, there is a paucity of research literature that had specifically linked the Big 5 traits to actual unethical behaviour regarding Internet use. It is even more significant that this study is one of the first of its kind to link the Big 5 Model to a few identified specific unethical behaviours in a tertiary-level academic setting.
With the threat of a deadline for submission of a term paper, for example, students are at great pressure to produce some quality academic work output. This pressure has often lead to unethical behaviour like plagiarism, fraudulent use of printed materials and even fudging a set of data by either altering the results somewhat or totally manufacturing a false set of data. The authors of this study set out to determine the extent or prevalence (how widespread) are the identified unethical behaviours among Malaysian college students regarding Internet use and if there is a link between those and the Big 5 Model to be able to reliably predict them.
The article reviewed here first gave some background on why unethical behaviour in Internet use has become quite common. Among reasons cited by the authors are advantages of using the Internet like its ease of use and its widespread availability with people and students now having access to cheaper Internet connections. Experts consider Internet availability as a boon rather than a bane, especially in an academic setting where much research work is being done. Access to data and other valuable sources of information and resource materials is made feasible with Internet technology (Laurence & Miller 2000, p. 110).
The various unethical behaviours are termed by the study authors as ITAD or Internet- triggered academic dishonesty and is considered by them as an aberrant behaviour. It was also acknowledged by them that a few of these aberrant behaviours had existed long before the use of Internet resources was introduced in academia such as student's cheat sheets or little pieces of paper smuggled into restricted rooms during examination periods. A few of these aberrant behaviours are totally new and others came into being as technologically-updated versions of older methods of dishonesty. In other words, Internet technology has become an enabler of the newer cheating methods not otherwise possible earlier (Karim, Zamzuri & Nor 2009, p. 86).
Besides plagiarism, a very common sin among students is the "copy-and-paste" mode of writing some of their assignments which results in not acknowledging their sources fully. A rampant use of these methods had educational practitioners worried because it is something quite new that came along with the Internet. Although admittedly computer ethics itself is a well-defined concept in existing literature, what is not covered by current literature are those aspects of computer use specifically limited to Internet usage especially in academic settings. The Internet today has acquired additional importance in education due to the paradigm shift in educators' thinking that learning is best experienced in a collaborative social setting when students are exposed to various social negotiation styles (Ke & Charr-Chellman 2006, p. 249).
Internet use ethics is discussed within the broader field of computer ethics which still is under the much bigger category of information technology. Certain Internet behaviours can be considered harmless such as using information sources without full acknowledging them while some Internet behaviours are particularly harmful such as hacking e-mail accounts and using the Internet to engage in cyber-bullying activities. Many activities persisted because of the lack of adequate laws and safeguards regarding such aberrant behaviour to punish those who engage in these unlawful and unethical behaviours (Harris 2005, p. 74). As author Harris points out, the anonymity afforded by the Internet lends itself to unethical behaviours.
Like other fields of human endeavour where technological advances are rapid such as in medical research and biological sciences, there is a lag between the development of ethics and in these new fields. Example of this lag is in bioethics which struggled with the morality of stem cell research using embryo-destruction techniques (Hug 2006, p. 111) and had a hard time defining what constitutes a human being from the start of fertilization, the zygote. In the same way, Internet technology has far outpaced the development of a set of the basic standard code of behaviour that will hopefully guide all individual Internet users.
When a deadline for submission of a crucial academic paper is looming, the sense of urgency and immediacy now acquires an emergency status for students caught in situations no different from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's sufferers who are impatient with all windy moral arguments about the moral propriety of stem-cell research (Ponnuru 2006, p. 160). Students are more than likely to engage in unethical behaviour to be able to pass the paper on time. It is safe to assume that the fear of punishment when caught is now instilled in students' minds due to the use of electronic plagiarism detection software such as Turnitin and CopyScape. But a more troubling issue is the lack of a comprehensive set of "cyber-ethics" that will instil values and guidelines about proper use of the Internet as an academic resource as told by the authors.
A Few Critical Issues in the Paper
The authors of this paper claimed that the most common academic sins connected with Internet use are fraudulence, falsification, plagiarism, delinquency and unauthorized help. But within the same paragraph, they also point as a limiting factor of their study the lack of more comprehensive correlation analysis between these common sins and the factors that may have facilitated their commission such as individual characteristics, peer pressure and institutional policies (or the lack thereof which is the case with some universities).
The authors should have done a correlation analysis on this relationship because it had somehow detracted the validity of their findings. Their failure to isolate these variable factors had impinged on whether the Big 5 Model is really valid and replicable in other experiments with regards to the link between unethical Internet behaviour and personality traits.
There is another finding that I found a bit disturbing or to say the least, quite confusing and this pertains to the profile of the survey respondents. The authors of this study had a 70% female composition of respondents and only 30% are males. A different set of demographics in which females comprise two-thirds of the respondents does not in any detract from some of their conclusions. However, assuming that their use linking the Big 5 Model is correct with regard to Internet behaviour, then this study at best has some skewed results.
This is because it conflicts with an earlier study done by Szabo & Underwood (2004) showing an alarming prevalence of the aberrant behaviours among males instead of females. The authors should have clarified on this further to avoid confusing their readers about some of their conclusions. However, viewed on conclusions that agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability are significantly inversely correlated to unethical Internet behaviour, then it somehow makes sense because females are more fearful of getting caught and severe consequences of engaging in such aberrant behaviour than males.
The authors acknowledged that the Big 5 Model is correlated positively with a number of factors such as individual performance, culture, ethical behaviour, deeply held values and beliefs as well as the sense of morality (Rawwas & Isakson 2000, p. 325). These three authors further claimed in their study that individual differences regarding the Big 5 Model that took into account certain variations in culture are quite stable or robust and hence equally valid or applicable with regards to their findings using Malaysian students.
However, almost in the same vein, they also disclaimed that this is true by stating the results of their study could be quite unique to the Malaysian academic environment only. This contradicts earlier claims that the Big 5 Model is applicable across various cultures. Although they clarified on it with a caveat, the authors still need to make a categorical stand on this.
Overall, I agree with their conclusion that agreeableness and conscientiousness are two factors that reliably predict students' aversion to engaging in unethical Internet behaviours but I find this to be a bit self-evident. They also stated that extra-version and intellectual openness are not strongly correlated which conflicts with their hypotheses (H1 and H5 in their paper).
Of all the sins students are likely to commit, it is probably plagiarism. This academic violation is not really a criminal offence but still students sometimes commit it unintentionally or unwittingly because of the shift in educational instruction, from giving oral presentations of assignments to faculty and replaced by requirements of written papers (Simmons 1999, p. 41). The study authors suggest that ethical behaviour is related to positive personality traits and if taken together with applied psychology principles can be used to design a comprehensive set of computer or cyber-ethics that can be integrated to the present curricula. An interesting way to maximize the use of Big 5 Model in Internet ethics will be to use a longitudinal study that tracks the same people similar to a 4-year study that detects a pattern (Beauvais et al. 2007).
Beauvais, L. L., Desplaces, D. E., Melchar, D. E. & Bosco, S. M., 2007. Business Faculty Perceptions and Actions Regarding Ethics Education. Journal of Academic Ethics, 5 (1), pp. 121-136.
In this study done on ethical behaviour by college students, it tracked the changes in their attitudes about ethics courses over a 4-year time-frame. Doing a study like this longitudinal study will factor out cultural influences across generations. In the study reviewed in this paper, the authors were very limited in selecting respondent students with 60% in the first year, 20% in second year and another 20% in both years 3 and 4. A longer study should track students from year 1 to year 4.
Harris, F. J., 2005. I found it on the Internet: Coming of Age Online. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions (American Library Association).
Anonymity on the Internet has produced some horrendous crimes because the risk of detection and discovery is much less. Anybody can assume a different name by using a nickname or username on the Web. Harris described various behaviours as ranging from simple mischief to serious mayhem.
Hug, K., 2006. Therapeutic Perspectives of human embryonic stem-cell research versus the moral status of a human embryo - does one have to be compromised for the other? Medicina (Kaunas), 42 (2), pp. 107-114.
Most religions are silent about the morality of stem-cell research because these religions were formed centuries ago and had not anticipated advances in medical technology. However, major religions consider the fortieth day from conception as the critical cut-off date in which a foetus acquires a soul and becomes human.
Karim, N. S. A, Zamzuri, N. H. A. & Nor, Y. M., 2009. Exploring the Relationship Between Internet Ethics in University Students and the Big Five Model of Personality. Computers and Education 53, pp. 86-93.
The authors here had committed several inconsistencies (minor flaws actually) in some of their conclusions. Maybe it is due to their difficulty with the English language as it is obvious from the way the article was written that English is not their first language. They had struggled at times to express ideas more concisely.
Ke, F. & Charr-Chellman A., 2006. Solitary Learner in Online Collaborative Learning: A Disappointing Experience? The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 7 (3), pp. 249-265.
Most studies regarding Internet use had focused on either the individual only or of team members organized around a virtual team. However, the critiqued paper had emphasised only on individual unethical behaviours among college students and not on behaviour in a group setting such as virtual teams formed to finish an assigned academic project. It is expected more schools will adopt group-oriented teaching methodologies as learning is now looked as a group social exercise.
Laurence, H. & Miller, W. 2000. Academic Research on the Internet: Options for Scholars and Libraries. Journal of Library Administration, 30 (1-4).
The Internet technology has opened up vast resources of the library to easy access over the Internet and most schools had now converted their library resources into digital format. However, this takes considerable time and expense on their part.
Ponnuru, R., 2006. The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts and the Disregard for Human Life. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.
The author's main concern here is the massive shift of the US towards the Left that has seen a rise in the use of ethically-questionable practices on research.
Rawwas, M. Y. A., & Isakson, H. R., 2000. Ethics of tomorrow's business managers: The influence of personal beliefs and values, individual characteristics, and the opportunity to cheat. Journal of Education for Business, 75(6), pp. 321-330.
People will always be influenced by their cultural background and upbringing. However, certain commonalities exist in all people across all cultures and those who plan to issue ethics guidelines can consider this fact in their formulations.
Simmons, S. C., 1999. Competing Notions of Authorship: A Historical Look at Students and Textbooks on Plagiarism and Cheating. In L. Buranen & A. M. Roy, ed. Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
This is quite an interesting chapter in an interesting book that looks at plagiarism in a serious and educational viewpoint. Plagiarism only came about due to the new requirements (at that time) to submit written papers instead of delivering them verbally in class in front of the faculty. With the advent of the Internet, this student plagiarism has reached alarming proportions in terms of prevalence.
Szabo, A. & Underwood, J., 2004. Cybercheats: Is Information and Communications Technology Fuelling Academic Dishonesty? Active Learning in Higher Education, 5 (2). pp. 180-199.
This study is more focused than the critiqued article in this paper because student respondents were asked only a fewer set of questions that are focused. The study done by Karim, Zamzuri & Nor is too detailed and the students were given only a 15-minute period to answer all of them in which the questionnaire contained some irrelevant items for purposes of their study. However, both studies validated their own findings about males being more liberal towards committing most dishonest academic activities and that 1st and 2nd years students tolerate plagiarism more.