Research Methods in Information Studies

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Researchers in the field of information studies investigate information systems and services to understand how people use them and to discover better designs for those systems and services. The research questions addressed are wide-ranging, and they evolve as information systems and services change. To meet the challenge of these many research questions, investigators have borrowed and adapted techniques from many other fields of science. These methods, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, offer a range of insights into information systems and services, the people who use them, and the intellectual and cultural content that they preserve. Research in information studies can be divided into three categories:(1) research into information interactions, using methods drawn from the social sciences, (2) research into cultural history, using methods from the humanities, and (3) information technology research and development, using methods from science and engineering.

Information Interaction

Information systems are developed for people who interact with them to search for, evaluate, and employ information. The interactions of users with information systems, and the factors that influence those interactions, are important focuses of information studies research.Researchers ask a variety of questions about information interactions, and they base these questions in a variety of perspectives drawn from the social sciences.

Researchers with backgrounds in psychology might ask the following questions: What mental characteristics of users lead them to search for information in specific ways? How do personality, mental abilities, or learning styles affect how people interact with information systems? Researchers with backgrounds in sociology, anthropology, or business administration might ask the following questions: How does membership in a group such as a profession, or an economic class, lead people to use information systems in distinctive ways? How do people in organizations such as firms and non-profit associations understand information technology, and how do such organizations establish norms for information-related behavior? How do ethnic or organizational cultures construct their own understandings of information and of information technologies and services? Researchers with backgrounds in political science might ask the following questions: How does information influence policymaking by legislatures and government agencies? How does information influence voting patterns in the electorate? What effect do information policies have on society as a whole? Researchers with backgrounds in economics might ask the following questions: What value does information have for people? How much are people willing to pay for information?

To study information interactions, researchers sometimes use public opinion surveys to ask users about their perceptions of information systems. For example, investigators have surveyed engineers to determine the kind of information that they need and how frequently they consult various information resources. From these kinds of surveys, researchers have found that many professionals prefer to ask people for needed information, rather than to consult books or databases. Knowing these preferences can help in the design of information systems and services. Researchers also use surveys to investigate why consumers select specific information services, as well as the value that is attributed to the retrieved information. They then compare the perceived value of information services with the costs that are incurred in providing the services. The result is a cost-benefit analysis of information services that can influence how information systems and services are implemented and funded.

Surveys distributed by mail, telephone, or e-mail provide a quick and reasonably easy way to gauge user opinions about information systems. However, surveys typically collect only a limited amount of detail. In addition, survey responses tend to relate to perceptions rather than to actual behaviors. For example, a respondent may truly believe that he or she uses a particular information source several times a week. However, that perception may be mistaken, and only direct observations of user behavior can verify its accuracy.

When surveys fail to provide sufficient depth of detail to allow researchers to understand users' behaviors, qualitative research can provide a more complete understanding. Qualitative methods, which include observation and in-depth interviews, provide a great deal of personal detail about information users. For example, researchers have observed users in their workplaces to find out how people select information resources. Results have emphasized the importance of internally generated information (e.g., company policies and memos) over information that is derived from external resources such as books and databases. Similarly, researchers have interviewed users in depth to discover their opinions about information systems and their motivations in searching for and using information. Using detailed analysis and interpretation of interview responses, researchers have developed interpretations of the factors that influence how users interact with information systems. Another approach to qualitative research asks questions about culture and uses ethnographic methods to answer those questions. Such methods have been used to investigate how the organizational culture of corporations influences the employees' use of information systems, or how people in specific occupations or socioeconomic classes seek and use information. Market research provides another pattern for investigating how users interact with information systems. In order to study whether members of target markets are likely to use specific information systems, researchers have used focus groups to elicit the opinions of typical systems users.

Experiments give researchers the ability to investigate information interactions in much detail. For example, experimenters have randomly assigned individuals to several different information systems and then asked them to complete an information search. When researchers compared the results of the searches statistically, it was possible to assess the effect of different information system designs on search success. Other experimenters have used more complex experiments to assess how different users interact with information systems. Such experiments have shown the effect of cognitive abilities, cognitive styles, learning styles, and problem-solving styles on user interactions with information systems. The results of such experiments allow systems designers to tailor information systems to suit the cognitive abilities or learning preferences of different users.

One final method of investigating information interactions deserves mention. Researchers have analyzed patterns of information use to provide detailed analyses of the structure of intellectual communities. For example, investigators have examined how scientists refer to previous research when they report their findings. They have found that there are groups of scientists who focus on the same topic, read each other's work, and communicate with each other. This type of research, called citation analysis, has been used to chart the development of specialized areas of research and publication and to visualize the structure of scientific communities.

Cultural History

Information systems and services are part of a group's intellectual and cultural history. Consequently, approaches to scholarship that have been developed in the humanities can also be applied to information studies research.

From a historical perspective, research questions focus on the history of ideas, technologies, and institutions. Researchers study the development and evolution of scientific schools of thought, the history of the development of new types of communication media, and the influence that these new media have on communication patterns. The history of libraries and similar information agencies and institutions is also a component of this type of research in information studies.

Historical methods employ a wide-ranging search for evidence about the past. Scholars find primary evidence in the contemporary accounts of people who participated in past events. These accounts are typically preserved in letters and similar archival materials. Other documents may preserve the social and political context in which particular historical events or trends occurred. By combining primary evidence with secondary evidence (i.e., interpretations of events by individuals who were not participants, such as later critics), historians develop interpretations of historical events and trends. Historical research has been applied to both information systems (such as the development of computerized information retrieval systems) and to information services (such as the history of information services provided by public health agencies). As with most history, the idea behind this kind of research is to document approaches that have been taken and decisions that have been made, so future information systems and services can be founded on previous work.

Scholars use other types of primary evidence in studies of the history of ideas. For example, researchers have examined records showing the sales and circulation of books or the patterns of scholarly citations over time to investigate the evolution of ideas and their transfer by communications media. Sometimes these studies are controversial because it is not always easy to associate patterns of information transfer with social and historical trends. Researchers have tried to interpret the effect of certain information (e.g., specific books) or certain information technologies (e.g., printing) on events. For example, there is little consensus among scholars about the effect of Enlightenment publishing on the American and French revolutions. However, detailed studies of patterns of publishing and reading have revealed how some ideas may have influenced the ways in which people perceived their societies, thus setting the stage for revolution.

From a philosophical perspective, research questions focus on the theoretical foundations of knowledge and on the ethics of information services. Philosophical research methods are hard to define. In many cases, investigators read extensively the ideas of other scholars and then try to fit ideas together into new interpretations of information and information services. For example, interpretations of ontology and epistemology can influence how information systems and services are created. If information is considered to have external reality with fixed attributes such as "aboutness," it is possible to treat information as objects and to develop systems to manage, categorize, and handle those objects. However, if a different philosophical view about the reality of information is maintained, the approach to information systems may be quite different. For example, if designers think that information is the process of becoming informed, then information systems must be created to facilitate the user-centered process rather than simply to manage information objects. Through the exposition of different philosophical approaches, scholars in information studies explore new ways of viewing information systems and services. In the area of information ethics, investigators have studied how people apply general principles to specific actions. These studies permit researchers to track the evolution of norms of behavior and to understand how these norms govern both professional practice and the actions of users.

Technology Research and Development

Information systems occur in the natural world, and they can be investigated just like any other natural phenomena. Aspects of information systems can be counted, measured, and documented. Here, the research questions are similar to those that are encountered in the natural sciences. Investigators might focus on patterns of authorship or on the use and obsolescence of materials. They would then describe these patterns mathematically and try to account for the influences that cause information patterns to vary.

This type of research is informetrics, and it includes more specific areas of study, such as bibliometrics and scientometrics. Informetrics involves measuring information phenomena and noting their distribution. For example, researchers have observed author productivity, the frequency of coauthorship, and the scatter of journal articles on a topic across a set of journals. Having observed the ways in which information phenomena are distributed, informetrics researchers create mathematical models that reflect these distributions. The mathematical models can then be used to predict how information phenomena behave in general and to compare how a variety of factors influence the distribution of information phenomena. A brief example will help to clarify this type of research. In any field of study, there are a few authors who produce a lot of the literature. These prolific authors write a lot of books and journal articles. There are more authors who are somewhat less prolific, writing fewer publications. There are also many authors who are not very prolific at all, writing only a few items. This relationship between author productivity and the number of authors can be described mathematically with a formula (i.e., Lotka's Law). Starting with this mathematical relationship, researchers have been able to compare different scientific fields to determine which fields tend to produce a greater concentration of prolific authors. Then, moving beyond pure science to applied science, researchers have been able to use Lotka's Law to optimize author indexes in databases of scientific literature.

Some informetrics studies relate to information services rather than information systems. For example, researchers have examined closely the patterns of book circulation from libraries. From these observations, the relationship between the age of materials and the probability that they will circulate has been quantified. Researchers have used this model of obsolescence of literature to decide how long certain materials should be maintained in active collections. The same models can help to predict numbers of hits on websites or the obsolescence of materials in digital libraries.

One of the most important goals of information studies research is to enable the design of new and improved information systems. Research that is patterned on that conducted in engineering helps researchers to achieve this goal. In general terms, these investigations involve building new or experimental information systems and then evaluating those systems in a variety of ways. One simple way of evaluating experimental systems is the information retrieval experiment. Here, researchers create a set of typical queries and a set of documents that may be relevant to those queries. They use these standard queries and documents in a series of different information retrieval systems. Using standardized measures of search quality, researchers can then assess which of the system designs produces the best search results.

Information retrieval experiments are, of course, very much more complex than this simple description would imply. Increasingly, researchers have moved toward evaluating new information system technologies in realistic settings. Rather than using small sets of documents, information retrieval experiments have begun to use very large databases. Similarly, instead of using a small set of "typical" queries, evaluations have begun to use real users with real information needs to test innovative technologies. This new approach to information retrieval experiments has introduced a new set of problems. In simple information retrieval experiments, researchers assumed that a document was either relevant or nonrelevant to a particular query. Once real users started to participate in information retrieval experiments, it became clear that users do not always have a clear assessment of document relevance. For example, the user might consider a document to be partially relevant. The user might also consider a document to be relevant but not particularly useful or important. Consequently, the crucial variables that allow information systems to be evaluated and compared have become considerably more complex.

The variety of technological innovations in information systems adds to the complexity of information retrieval experiments. The advent of information systems that handle images, video clips, and sounds has multiplied the number of retrieval capabilities to be assessed. To compare the many full-text retrieval engines that are being invented in laboratories has required a substantial, multiyear, international effort with funding from a number of public and private sources. Similarly, to develop and test the first generation of digital libraries has taken large efforts supported by substantial infusions of public funds in several countries.

Usability testing is another technique that has been derived from engineering research. In usability testing, the focus is not on the effectiveness or efficiency of the information systems; the focus is placed instead on how easy information systems are to use. Researchers typically give users the opportunity to work with experimental information systems and to assess their ease of use. Although this sounds like a relatively simple process, there are many factors to be considered. For example, any user group will include individuals who have different cognitive abilities, learning styles, or problem-solving preferences. Different ethnic and cultural groups in the user population may bring unique approaches to information seeking and use. In addition, there is usually a series of tradeoffs between ease of use and the capabilities of the information systems. Finally, users frequently will find a familiar-looking system easier to use than a system that has greater capabilities and ease of use but looks "new" or "difficult." Balancing all of these user characteristics to come up with a meaningful assessment of usability requires rigorous investigation techniques.

Some usability testing uses a combination of experts and real users to test the features of new information systems. Experts in information system design can frequently judge certain aspects of the system designs more efficiently and effectively than the users themselves can. Experts can, for example, determine whether information systems provide users with adequate knowledge of the techniques that they need to use to conduct a successful search. Once experts have tested the design of the systems, users can test their functionality and ease of use.


Research in information studies addresses a large number of research questions. Because information systems and services are constantly evolving, there are always new questions about the best ways in which to meet the information needs of users. As a result, new avenues of research in information studies appear on a constant basis. Researchers in information studies have used techniques from a wide range of other scientific disciplines. Social science perspectives and methods predominate, but the humanities, natural sciences, and engineering have contributed to the variety of information studies research. Because of the use of multiple perspectives and varied research methods, information studies research is interdisciplinary and eclectic in nature. However, the many perspectives and methods that researchers bring to information systems and services have the potential to provide a rich understanding of information interactions, intellectual and cultural history, and information systems design and development.

See also:Archives, Public Records, and Records Management; Chief Information officers; Culture and Communication; Ethics and Information; Information Industry; Information Society, Description of; Libraries, Digital; Libraries, History of; Management Information Systems; Opinion Polling, Careers in; Price, Derek John de Solla; Printing, History and Methods of; Retrieval of Information; Systems Designers; Technology, Philosophy of.


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Bryce Allen

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Research Methods in Information Studies

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