Thursday, March 27, 2014

Summary: "Information Research on Interdisciplinarity," Carole E. Palmer

In her chapter entitled, “Information Research on Interdisciplinarity,” Carole E. Palmer discusses interdisciplinarity in the context of studies undertaken in the field of library information science regarding interdisciplinary research. Although she states early on that, “some of the field's most formidable problems stem from the need to develop effective information systems and services for interdisciplinary researchers,” she does not subsequently explain how exactly LIS is attempting to develop such systems exactly. Rather, she briefly describes five topics in the realm of LIS research that can be seen as representing ways of conceptualizing the research problems faced by interdisciplinary scholars. Since it was quite difficult to parse out Palmer’s three main points, as each are weighted fairly equally in her chapter, I will briefly review each.

The first of these is information scatter. Palmer describes this as simply the “distribution of information [that interdisciplinary scholars use], intellectually across subject areas but also physically across sources and organizations.” While she notes the obvious drawbacks of scattered distribution, she also points out its possibilities for interdisciplinary researchers when she says: “scatter outside the core promotes discovery and integration of disparate knowledge rather than isolation within a domain.” With this in mind, she goes on to quickly discuss the concept of literature-based discovery, in which “new knowledge…can be uncovered by identifying implicit connections, or missing links, between dis- connected literatures.” In addition, Palmer notes how small, specialized domains tend to have more scatter than larger, more general domains. This, to me, seems potentially paradoxical; (my question is) couldn’t more general domains just as logically have related information in a broader distribution than would more specialized domains? 

Next, Palmer discusses two key types of LIS studies on interdisciplinary research. The first is bibliometric research. She defines this research as one which uses “bibliographic indicators in documentary sources, such as the disciplines referenced or cited by authors, disciplinary affiliations of co-authors, structures of co-citation clusters, or co-word associations among” in order to understand relationships among disciplines. Interestingly, bibliometric research can also “track research fronts and growing concentrations in interdisciplinary activity,” as well as “indicate levels of knowledge transfer and the impact of inter- disciplinary research.” (My question is:) Given that many, if not a majority of scholars consider themselves interdisciplinary but may not have any formal recognition of that beyond their one disciplinary affiliation, how reliable is looking at disciplinary affiliations as a bibliometric measure of relationships among disciplines – or is that a less relied-upon measure?

The second type of LIS study Palmer illuminates is information behavior research. Much like it sounds, it attempts to understand “the actual practice of research” amongst scattered information, thereby complementing bibliometric studies according to Palmer.  She notes that whereas “bibliometric studies have tended to focus on the sciences, information behavior research has consistently covered the humanities and the social sciences as well as the sciences.” Both, however, are mostly domain-based, although information behavior research sometimes looks at interdisciplinarity researchers apart from domain parameters. Broadening the applicability of her discussion, Palmer states that bibliometric as well as information behavior research not only have practical application “for the development of libraries and information systems” but also contribute “to our basic under- standing of how disciplines interact and conditions that promote and deter the conduct of interdisciplinary research.”

The next element Palmer introduces is models of scholarly information process. In this brief discussion, she essentially asserts that without producing “a complete account of the differences between disciplinary and interdisciplinary information behavior, LIS utilizes models to help envision how disciplinary versus interdisciplinary researchers operate. She provides examples how scholars have identified a series of information activities, three modes of interdisciplinary inquiry, and three core research processes to portray the field’s attempts to imagine an idealized standard framework and/or systematic process of interdisciplinary research. As I got the impression that these models would eventually help improve the scholarly information process in some way, I was left a bit confused as to how these models were operationalized for that purpose.

Finally, weak information work is the last element of interdisciplinary research in LIS that Palmer introduces. This concept, Palmer explains, represents the strategies interdisciplinary scholars use to move into and within other domains, and interpret and communicate information for themselves and others once in those domains. She says that “Probing of information and translation of terminology, concepts, and ideas” are the key strategies of weak information work. Not surprisingly, they are very laborious and time-consuming as Palmer notes. This section seems to be in support of her initial claim that interdisciplinary scholars face an additional burden due to the nature of their work, the abundance of information available, and the current state of research technologies.

In her conclusion, Palmer lays out areas for further research, given her highly reasonable prediction that research on interdisciplinarity will continue as interdisciplinarity itself remains a prominent mode of scholarly inquiry. I was surprised, however, at one suggestion she makes for future LIS work, the “need for the development of cross-disciplinary ontologies and thesauri to assist in mapping content to provide smoother digital access across fields,” as she immediately qualified this in saying “but not at the expense of deep access within a curated collection.” (My question is:) Since it seems that the very problem that interdisciplinary researchers face is the result of excessive attention given to already curated collections rather than to devising a method of cross-pollinating the research one way or another, doesn’t this qualification negate the suggestion itself?

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