Information Behavior of Scientists and Engineers: A Comparison

Information Behavior of Scientists and Engineers: A Comparison

Information seeking behavior varies based on many aspects of human nature - Information Behavior of Scientists and Engineers: A Comparison introduction. One aspect that differentiates the way in which information is gained is a person’s occupation. Both engineers and scientists, as groups who often need to find information, have developed particular processes for doing so based on their professional need, educational backgrounds and ease of finding the proper information to aid them in their duties. Many of the processes used by engineers as well as scientists are similar, while disparities occur based on the location of best available professional sources.

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Engineering is considered a “metadiscipline” based on the fact that although there are many different types of engineers, all use similar problem-solving techniques and system design (Case, 2007). As a whole, engineers tend to utilize the “principal of least effort” when searching for information, partly due to time constraints. Consequently, they will first rely on personal knowledge, verbal exchanges, internal and direct communications. Much of the information that engineers find and use is gleaned through contact with colleagues – either on a personal or professional basis – and skimming through professional journal articles. Engineers also search using methods that are the most accessible to them. While many relate that corporate files or data archives located within the company’s confines are often preferable to using outside sources for information, most such systems are disorganized, making the information hard to access.

Scientists often exhibit the eight characteristics of information seeking behavior previously defined by Ellis, et al (1993): starting, chaining, browsing, differentiating, monitoring, extracting, verifying and ending, although only chemists generally use ending, or doing a final review of findings to ensure there is no further updated information available before concluding their search. Informal searches for information by consulting with colleagues is relied upon by scientists but not to the exclusion of scientific literature. A component of using informal searches is the fact that many scientists must gather information from other specialties, if not be formally trained in interdisciplinary aspects of their field. The processes of information seeking behavior are largely the same throughout the scientific community although the types of information sought vary according to its intended purpose. Many scientists present findings to lay people and so tend to seek sources of information that will be easy for non-academic audiences to understand.

In both groups, the advent of the Internet has had a great impact. Engineers as well as scientists reported using search engines first in most cases when seeking information. This varies from past behavioral studies in that before computers were as prevalent as they are today, scientists as well as engineers would have found the need to use a library to seek scholarly information that is now readily available on the Internet. Both groups report using a social aspect and cite personal contacts as a good information source or, at the very least, to aid in chaining, monitoring and/or extracting purposes. Networking in the form of professional associations and interaction with personal colleagues plays a key role in the information seeking behaviors of scientists and engineers.

One manner in which scientists differ from engineers in their information seeking behavior is a reliance on print sources. Although scientists search for sources on the Internet, they tend to prefer a volume to peruse as opposed to a website and some profess to still visit the library on occasion in their search for abstracts which are not indexed on the Internet. Conversely, engineers who use the principle of least effort will not use a library as a source of information, even when it is conveniently located within the company’s grounds. The engineering community tends to rely more on verbal interactions, both personal and professional, to make them aware of information that might have some benefit to their own research.

Many of the differences in information seeking behavior between scientists and engineers is that, although many aspects of their professions are similar, the execution of tasks is quite different. Scientists are often more “hands-on” in their approach to research as the result of their professional duties while engineers tend to be more cerebral. Time factors are an additional consideration in the disparity between the two groups. Scientists often work in a solitary environment on research that can take years to complete while engineers tend to work in more fast-paced, corporate environments. Thus, this would explain the engineers’ need to use the principle of least effort in seeking information while scientists still rely on more traditional methods and processes of information seeking behavior.

Both groups, however, have similar needs for information including documented data and previous research as well as like sources in the form of professional journals and scholarly articles, professional associations and networking opportunities. Clearly, the advent of the Internet has had an enormous impact on the way scientists and engineers perform searches for information and both professions are relying less on sources found in libraries and in print formats.

It will be interesting to note the results of further research into the information seeking behaviors of both groups. The lack of organized internal information available for engineers should be a key insight for corporations such as Boeing and other engineering firms. As scientists move further towards the necessity of developing interdisciplinary backgrounds, the process of finding information in other disciplines will surely be modified to make such a search easier. Data from the focus group of scientific librarians should also be enlightening and mark the way for future developments in information behavior.

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