Magazine article Special Libraries

Technical Communications in Engineering and Science: The Practices within a Government Defense Laboratory

Magazine article Special Libraries

Technical Communications in Engineering and Science: The Practices within a Government Defense Laboratory

Article excerpt


The technical communication and information-related activities of engineers and scientists have been a topic of study and discussion for more than 40 years. There is little to challenge the notion that both groups rely heavily on information, and engineers and scientists themselves generally acknowledge that information is their most significant product. Aside from these fundamental conclusions, there has been scant progress in studying the varied role of information for engineers in comparison with its role for scientists. Research into the functions of information for these groups has lagged behind other user studies largely because the majority of research on information needs and use has focused on scientists alone or on heterogeneous groups of engineers and scientists working together. Such studies have not contributed significantly to differentiating the information behaviors of the two groups. This unique study compares engineers and scientists at the same laboratory.

Additionally, there is little known about the technical communication and information-related activities of engineers and scientists working for the Department of Defense as military employees. Surveys and other studies have included this group with engineers and scientists working for industry, academic institutions, or other government organizations. In the few studies concerning defense engineers and scientists, the majority of respondents were civilian.[1,2] Because two-thirds of the respondents in the present survey are military engineers and scientists, preliminary conclusions can also be drawn concerning the technical communication and information-related activities of this segment of the research community.

Literature Summary

Previous studies have assumed that scientific discovery progressed smoothly and naturally to technological advancement and that the literature of both science and technology was similarly used and produced.[3] Kline writes that even the name given to the innovation process, R&D, "implies the linear model: the phrase itself suggests a direct and unique path from research to development and product."[4] This thinking links engineering and science, at times nearly equating the two. Engineers and scientists are seen as interacting, complementary forces driving the innovation process. Engineers and scientists are thus seen as comparable in their goals, work orientation, and communication practices - an assumption which became the foundation of current U.S. science and technology policies and practices. Closer examination, however, supports the position that the two fields of engineering and science and technology advance independently of each other, with the literature of each cumulating independently as well.[5,6] More significantly, it became apparent that engineers and scientists do not have the same information gathering and usage patterns.[7]

While acknowledging that scientific literature is unique from engineering literature, both are recognized as equal cornerstones of innovation. The two branches of knowledge are thus permanently linked together as scientific and technical information or STI. Questions about the use of STI have increased recently as a result of the "rising interest and concerns regarding industrial competitiveness and technological innovation."[8] These studies confirm what many have suspected - that communication of STI by engineers and scientists plays a critical role in the innovation process. The studies have also increased curiosity about how that information is gathered and used by engineers versus scientists. Several extensive reviews of the literature provide background and state-of-the-art research on communication by engineers.[9,10]

Differentiating Engineers from Scientists

Engineering is defined as "the application of scientific knowledge to the creation or improvement of technology for human use."[11] This explains the notion of engineering/technology as an applied science. …

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