Information Seeking in Academic Research: A Study of the Sociology Faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Article excerpt

This study examines how social scientists arrive at and utilize information in the course of their research. Results are drawn about the use of information resources and channels to address information inquiry, the strategies for information seeking, and the difficulties encountered in information seeking for academic research in today's information environment. These findings refine the understanding of the dynamic relationship between information systems and services and their users within social-scientific research practice and provide implications for scholarly information-system development.

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The information needs and information-seeking behavior of social scientists have been the focus of inquiry within library and information science (LIS) research for decades. Folster reviewed the major studies that have been conducted in this area over the past three decades. (1) She found that research methods had developed through several stages. Research prior to the 1960s usually consisted of questionnaire-based user studies that gathered basic demographic data and quantitative data on the type of information used. Following that were citation studies in the mid-1960s, and then the combination of questionnaire and interview techniques to develop profiles of users and their needs in the 1970s. The information environment of the 1980s witnessed a major transition in research design. The former practice of studying large groups via questionnaires or structured interviews gave way to the use of unstructured interviews or observation of smaller groups, resulting in a more holistic picture of social scientists' research practices. More fully developed techniques for behavioral models emerged in the 1990s. Folster summarized these studies done over decades and concluded that (1) social scientists place a high importance on journals; (2) most of their citation identification comes from journals; (3) informal channels, such as consulting colleagues and attending conferences, are an important source of information; (4) library resources, such as catalogs, indexes, and librarians, are not very heavily utilized; and (5) computerized services are ranked very low in their importance to the research process.

There are many examples of studies about the information-seeking behavior of social scientists. For example, the INFROSS project (Investigation into Information Requirements of the Social Scientist) studied the information needs of British social scientists in the late 1960s and early 1970s and found that they preferred to use journal citations instead of traditional bibliographic tools, and that they tended to consult with colleagues and subject experts, rather than library catalogs or librarians in order to locate information. (2) Other social-scientist studies reinforced the findings of the INFROSS project. (3) Several studies indicated that computerized literature searching was ranked low as a source of information among social scientists and suggested the promotion of electronic information services by librarians to enhance their roles as information providers. (4)

In an influential study on social scientists' information-seeking patterns, Ellis developed a behavioral model with six features based on the stages they went through in gathering information:

* Starting--includes activities characteristic of the initial search for information, such as asking colleagues or consulting literature reviews, online catalogs, and indexes and abstracts;

* Chaining--following chains of citations and other forms of referential connection between materials;

* Browsing--semi-directed searching in an area of potential interest, such as scanning published journals, tables of contents, references, and abstracts;

* Differentiating--using differences (authors or journal hierarchies) between sources as a filter on the nature and quality of the material examined;

* Monitoring--maintaining awareness of developments in an area through the monitoring of particular sources such as core journals, newspapers, conferences, magazines, books, and catalogs; and

* Extracting--systematically working through a particular source to locate material of interest, for example, sets of journals, collections of indexes, abstracts, or bibliographies. …

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