Information use and discovery

28 February 2012
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Collaborative, yet independent: Ralph Adams looks at information practices in the physical sciences

The search for trust and authority in science has a long history. However, it was World War II experiences with ‘big science’, such as the development of the atom bomb, that encouraged western governments to learn how scientists and engineers find out about, and communicate, research information and help them become more efficient at handling it.

After the war, major international conferences involving leading scientists took place in London in 1948, sponsored by the Royal Society, and Washington DC in 1959. It was here that, for the first time, librarians and scientific professional bodies met to discuss information-seeking and research skills. One outcome was the creation of a new discipline: information science. Another was to make participants aware that there is not just a single scientific method and, therefore, it is unreasonable to assume there to be only one research method. At the Washington conference, JD Bernal had emphasised the legitimacy of asking not only how information is to be dealt with, but also what that information is, who it is intended for, and to what degree the transmission of information helps the advancement of science.

During the 60s and 70s, these meetings led to the investment of substantial resources into investigating how different disciplines use information. The largest projects were those of the University of Bath, the American Psychological Association, and Johns Hopkins University. Each resulted in many reports.

The rapid development of communication technologies has shown the need for fresh investigations. The latest, from Britain’s Research Information Network (RIN) (part of a series covering different disciplines), focuses on seven areas of physical science to examine not just information use, but also how practices, such as levels of co-operation, have changed through the adoption of new technology.

While respondents did not feel modern technology to have raised novel questions, further evidence was produced of the merging of home and office, with the expectation that people work day and night, while travelling or carrying out activities which previously would have precluded researchers from being contacted. The findings reflect those of previous research, but interesting patterns also emerge: the importance of collaboration, the range of information tools used, both formally (in terms of published resources), and informally (colleagues, opinion-leaders and invisible colleges), the increasing need for data analysis and programming skills, confusion over how to cite databases, and the role of social media. Yet, many scientists were surprisingly unsophisticated users of information sources, with few adopting innovative search and retrieval strategies or using specialised tools, such as the IET’s Inspec. Significant variations were observed between sub-disciplines. Despite their importance, libraries were not perceived as vital resources, due, perhaps, to their success in providing seamless online services that have, effectively, made them invisible. It is interesting that researchers complained about email overload: previous work suggests that the more messages people receive, and the better they are organised, the less email is a problem.

The RIN project is valuable, but the mountain of findings from decades of research on information use remains uncoordinated. We lack an aerial view of the work inspired by those post-war conferences: a clear map of scientific information use. Who will give us that?

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