Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 58, Issue 1–3, pp 227–236 | Cite as

Professional Ethics in a Virtual World: The Impact of the Internet on Traditional Notions of Professionalism

  • Ellen M. Harshman
  • James F. Gilsinan
  • James E. Fisher
  • Frederick C. Yeager


Numerous articles in the popular press together with an examination of websites associated with the medical, legal, engineering, financial, and other professions leave no doubt that the role of professions has been impacted by the Internet. While offering the promise of the democratization of expertise – expertise made available to the public at convenient times and locations and at an affordable cost – the Internet is also driving a reexamination of the concept of professional identity and related claims of expertise and standards of integrity.

This paper begins with a presentation of case studies illustrating the ease by which impostors infiltrate the ranks of professionals. Reports of individuals masquerading as professionals via the Internet often reveal that these imposters cause harm to the unwary victims who rely on assertions of professional expertise. Such reports motivated the authors to examine the origins and evolution of the traditional roles of professions and professionals in today’s society, as well as question how, or whether, the standards for professional practice have been adapted to the challenges posed by technology, i.e., do statements of professional ethics provide a ‘guiding light’ for practitioners and their clients in the cyber age? The authors challenge the professions to consider the notion that technology forces a confrontation between the guild-like aspects of a profession that have served, on the one hand, to protect a profession from encroachment and, on the other hand, have purportedly protected the public.

The authors conclude by presenting an examination of websites that show recognition of the challenges that the Internet poses to professionalism, as we have known it. Detailed discussion of the websites of two professions illustrates different approaches to responding to these challenges.


Democratization of information profession(s) professional ethics professional expertize professionalism 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ellen M. Harshman
    • 1
  • James F. Gilsinan
    • 2
  • James E. Fisher
    • 3
  • Frederick C. Yeager
    • 4
  1. 1.John Cook School of Business and Associate Professor of ManagementSaint Louis UniversitySt. LouisU.S.A
  2. 2.College of Public Service and a Professor of Urban SociologySaint Louis UniversitySt. LouisU.S.A
  3. 3.Director of the Emerson Center for Business Ethics and Associate Professor of MarketingSaint Louis UniversitySt. LouisU.S.A
  4. 4.Professor of Finance, John Cook School of BusinessSaint Louis UniversitySt. LouisU.S.A

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