30 April 2009

Web services

A couple of services have been drawn to my attention recently that may be of interest to readers of the Weblog and Information Research.

The first is, in effect, a public archive of writings on anything imaginable, from scientific papers to cookery books - it's called Scribd (presumably intended to be pronounced 'scribed'). I haven't explored it to any very great extent at present, but one of the features is that you can point friends and colleagues to documents that you have placed on Scribd - enabling a modest kind of collaboration.

The other is Mendeley a system to "Manage, share and discover research papers". The aim of this system is ambitious and has behind it, apparently some of the people who established Skype - which implies serious money. Mendeley comes in two forms, a desktop system for bibliography management, and a Web system for finding papers, organising your own, and discovering potential collaborators. I shall keep an eye on this one - it has things in common with Zotero, but a whole lot more besides.

18 April 2009

Journal price increases

Bill Hooker has a blog called Open Reading Frame, which has an item on increases in journal prices. He shows that, in dollar prices:
From 1990 to 2008, total price increases ranged from 238% (astronomy) to 537% (general science); that's 3.7 and 8.3 times the increase in the CPI [consumer price index], respectively.

Would the publishers care to tell us how this is the case?

I thought of drawing a graph to show the difference between Information Research and other 'Platinum track' journals and the priced publications but, on reflection, I felt that a graph showing an annual zero percent increase from a base of zero would not be particularly interesting! (Later - in a comment, Bill Hooker points out that the flat line is interesting evidence that some publishing models can keep costs down. I'm happy to be able to support that!)

10 April 2009

The behaviour/practice debate - Reijo's reply

Tom´s reply to my comment is very sophisticated and it elaborates well the complex relationships between behaviour and practice, as well as their constituents. Given the complexity of these issues, my comment below should not be seen as ”a final word” about this theme. I hope that our dialogue will serve as an introduction to a broader discussion about the key concepts used in our field.

As our dialogue indicates, we emphasize the need to clarify the meaning of the concepts of information behaviour and information practice. Studies focusing on the definition of the above concepts would scrutinize their semantic similarities and differences. Conceptual analyses are helpful in that they can indicate how the concepts overlap or converge, for example.

On the other hand, purely semantic analyses or the scrutiny of definitions may not lead us very far, after all. Therefore, it is equally important to reflect the discursive nature of concepts by investigating their origin and legitimacy. I have discussed this topic in more detail in an article entitled ”Information behaviour and information practice: reviewing the 'umbrella concepts' of information-seeking studies” (Library Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 2, 2007). I concluded that the above ”umbrella concepts” cannot be conceived of as semantically neutral constructs because ultimately, the definition of concepts draws on various discourses. Discourses are ideological in that they win over the speaking subjects by formulating a positive associative content for concepts so that they can legitimize themselves. From this perspective, information behaviour and information practice are not ”ideologically innocent”; both concepts incorporate the discursive power to name and legitimize.

Interestingly, one of Tom´s comments is very indicative of this issue. He suggests that ”the generic concept is behaviour – hence, for example, the ‘behavioural sciences’ – we do not speak of the ‘action sciences’ or the ‘practice sciences’: the others are elements of behaviour – actions, activities – or a mode of behaviour – practice”. Later on, Tom writes: ”In my understanding the common phenomenon is human behaviour which is composed of cognitive, physical and social actions, which constitute activities”. Obviously, the assumption that behaviour is a more generic (or common) category than action or practice suggests the existence of a discursive formation that legitimizes behaviour as generic. However, this may not be a value-neutral postulate because all classifications imply values of some kinds. Therefore, classifications tend to be sites of discursive struggles. In the above case, the relationship between generic (behaviour) and specific (practice) is constructed and legitimized within the discourse on behaviour. We may think that in a similar vein, information practice can be constructed as a more specific category than information behavior. Tom´s comment provides support to this assumption: (information) practice is conceived of as an element or mode of (information) behaviour. The power to name of this kind may reflect the view that the concept of information behaviour is fairly well established in information studies, while the concept of information practice is perceived as its challenger.

Tom provides useful clarifications to the issue of behaviourism. I will not comment on it here because as a whole, behaviourism seems to be a secondary theme with regard to the characterization of information behaviour. Instead of behaviourism, it might be more fruitful to shift attention to behavioural sciences and reflect in greater depth on how to characterize the attribute ”behavioural” related to information. However, thinking Tom´s reply, I found more interesting his critique towards the practice theories. Tom writes: ”The difficulty that practice theorists have is that by deliberately opposing the concept of behaviour, they lose all possibility of developing a distinctive, coherent theory”. Again, we may identify a site of discursive struggle here. However, as to the development of the theory projects of Bourdieu and Giddens, for example, it seems to me that they have not primarily been driven by the motive of ”deliberately opposing the concept of behaviour”. Rather, Bourdieu and Giddens were interested in renewing sociological theory by proposing conceptions such as habitus and structuration.

I agree with Tom´s view that the current practice theories are far from coherent. On the other hand, this criticism may be applicable to the theories of behaviour as well. Which of them would be most relevant for the development of the models of information behaviour? There may be no obvious candidates. Tom asks a similar question: ”if we are to adopt ‘practice’ in place of ‘behaviour’ – which theory of practice will we use, and how will we use it to explore what I call ‘information behaviour?

I employed Schatzki´s practice theory and in my view it provides a useful framework for the conceptualization of everyday information practices. However, in my view, we should not substitute practice for behaviour in the above context. Both information behaviour and information practice can be constructed as equally legitimate, without attempting to reduce one to another. In fact, Tom provides constructive examples of how to define practice in its own right as customary or habitual activity. On the other hand, he writes: ”I do not view behaviour and practice as being in opposition, but neither do I view them as having equal theoretical status”. This suggests that in the end, behaviour should be given a privileged status over practice because the former is the generic and common phenomenon. Interestingly, in this way we are back with questions of power to name.

Tom concludes his reply with a request: ”if we are to use practice as an analytical concept we need to define it rigorously – not for all time, of course, but at least for the purposes of any given investigation”. This suggestion is highly relevant and it might be broadened to include information behaviour, too. Thus, researchers should not take any umbrella concepts as given. To this end, they should generate a self-reflexive and critical attitude to the definition and justification of concepts. This attitude is highly desirable, independent whether researchers prefer information behaviour or information practice as an umbrella concept that reflects best their meta-theoretical and methodological commitments.

07 April 2009

The behaviour/practice debate - reply to Reijo

Reijo’s response is helpful in moving the debate on and we begin to converge, I think. However, there are one or two places where I think that further clarification is necessary. First, Reijo notes, “the exact definition of the concepts of behaviour, action, activity and practice is very difficult, due to their generic nature.” However, to my understanding, these concepts are not generic. The generic concept is behaviour – hence, for example, the ‘behavioural sciences’ – we do not speak of the ‘action sciences’ or the ‘practice sciences’: the others are elements of behaviour – actions, activities – or a mode of behaviour – practice. Our behaviour in the world is composed of cognitive, physical and social activities, which, in terms of activity theory, are composed of actions. The lack of consensus to which Reijo refers seems to me to have more to do with ideological differences, fads and fashions, to which the human and social sciences are prone, rather than because of any intrinsic semantic problems.

Reijo also notes, “I do not focus on the limitations of behaviourism to undermine the credibility of the concept of ”information behaviour”, but, in his book, it is these limitations that are put forward as the main reason for rejecting the concept of behaviour in favour of practice. The section on pages 21 to 23 is concerned essentially with this argument, and my point was that this is a rather laboured argument because behaviourism does not have the strength of support it did in, say, the 1950s.

In referring to my comment about “triggers”, when I draw attention to the pervasive nature of behaviourist ideas, Reijo comments: “However, I would like to understand the ”triggers” here more broadly, not merely as stimuli since this view reminds us of the behaviourist approach. For example, consumption issues (as triggers of information seeking) are not reducible to immediate stimuli experienced and reacted to in the supermarket. The triggering factors may also incorporate values, interests and norms that orient habitual ways to prefer individual products, for example.” There is a problem here: I am no behaviourist (in spite of the fact that some commentators (not Reijo) appear to align me with that school) but “stimulus” is much more widely understood within behaviourism than Reijo suggests. For example, within behaviourist learning theory, values and social norms, play a key role – there is no suggestion within behaviourism that the individual is some kind of isolated organism, unaffected by the surrounding society. Rather, it is understood that learning is a social process as much as it is a cognitive process. What Reijo calls “triggering factors” would be understood in behaviourism as stimuli and values and other elements would be understood to be part of those stimuli. However, I drew attention to the statement, to point out that, whatever one’s position vis-à-vis behaviourism, the fact is that the concepts have become deeply embedded in our discourse.

Again, Rejio comments, “Behaviour draws more strongly on the tradition of psychology (or social psychology) while the conceptualizations of practice draw more on sociology (Bourdieu, Giddens) and social philosophy (Schutz, Schatzki, Wittgenstein). From this perspective, information behaviour and information practice complement each other.” This may be the opinion of the practice theorists mentioned by the Reijo in his text, but I think it would be rejected by many sociologists, political scientists and social anthropologists today, who do not limit their understanding of ‘behaviour’ to the psychological use of the term. The sociological literature is full of references to behaviour, without limiting the concept to a psychological context. Indeed, sociology could not study social behaviour as a purely psychological phenomenon without being charged with reductionism. This leads me to the belief that the practice theorists themselves are setting up the straw man argument, simply to bolster their own positions – and, given the era in which practice theory emerged (Bourdieu’s Outline of a theory of practice was published in 1972), it was, perhaps, understandable, since Bourdieu, Schutz, Schatzki and others were reacting against what had been until then, a prevailing orthodoxy.

The difficulty that practice theorists have is that by deliberately opposing the concept of behaviour, they lose all possibility of developing a distinctive, coherent theory. As Reijo notes, practice theory has its own problems of confusing and conflicting definitions and, rather than clarifying, its application appears to further confuse. Quite significant differences exist among the main protagonists of practice theory – perhaps Bourdieu can be credited with its invention, and he wrote of social practices and from his early work on a theory of practice derived his possibly better-known concepts of habitus and social capital. Giddens also sees society as being the result of structured practices, while both Bourdieu and Foucault are also interested in the embodiment of practice – that is, how the body is used in the performance of a practice and how the practice shapes the use of the body. Needless to say, there are other practice theorists who would hold different views of what ‘practice’ may be.

This leaves us with a problem – if we are to adopt ‘practice’ in place of ‘behaviour’ – which theory of practice will we use, and how will we use it to explore what I call ‘information behaviour? We cannot tell this from Reijo’s work at this stage of its development, since his empirical work was conducted within the framework of phenomenological sociology – a move I’m very happy to see – and use of the term ‘practice’ does not seem to perform any analytical purpose. As Reijo notes, his results provide further support for previous work – virtually all of which was carried out as explorations of information behaviour.

Reijo concludes that, “To clarify the meaning of key concepts, it is important to continue the analysis of conceptual issues by scrutinizing how information behaviour and information practice are related and how they may be understood as diverse (complementary) aspects of a common phenomenon.” Clearly, I have ideas on how that might be achieved. However, although I would conceive of the concepts as related, I would not see them as aspects of a common phenomenon.

In my understanding the common phenomenon is human behaviour, which is composed of cognitive, physical and social actions, which constitute activities. For example, “information searching” is an activity which includes a variety of actions to accomplish the task or operation – actions such as logging on to a computer, launching a Web browser, entering a search term and so on. Before the introduction of the Web, the actions would have been different: visiting the library, locating an abstracting journal, searching the subject index, noting item numbers on paper, searching for those item numbers, recording potentially relevant items, and so on. Bourdieu sees things similarly when he talks of the ‘elementary units of behaviour... in the unity of an organized activity’. In fact, examining some representations of practice theory, there is a very close resemblance to activity theory. Of course, Bourdieu could not acknowledge this as he was presenting an anti-Marxist view of relationships in society.

I would define a practice, on the other hand, as a customary activity and, in Bourdieu and others this formulation is limited to socially determined and/or socially sanctioned activities – where the social aspect may be explicit (as in legally sanctioned activity) or implicit, as in social mores.

In other writings on practice theory, practices are seen as characteristic routines and habits. I would associate routines with work tasks, and habits with personally constructed behaviour. On this definition, work practices would be associated with routines and everyday practices with habits.

Reijo notes: “However, as I suggest in Fig. 3.3. (p. 65), practices may also incorporate non-routine elements (actions). Practices are not necessarily composed of frozen habits since habituated actions evolve, too. From this perspective, defining practice as habituated behaviour may narrow its meaning.

I do not see this as a significant issue: like all aspects of human behaviour routines and habits are malleable, the adoption of the terms does not imply that the actions incorporated are never subject to change. Circumstances alter cases, as the saying goes and there are many City of London bankers and traders whose eating and drinking ‘habits’ will have changed significantly in recent months.

With this model there is no opposition of practice and behaviour: behaviour is the totality of human activity in society, while, on the individual level, practices are aggregations of routines and/or habits towards the accomplishment of some goal. Social practices, on the other hand are discussed in terms of how the structures of society result from practice. If we wish to incorporate the notion of social determination or sanction, we are probably looking at a higher level of aggregation with the aim of understanding how our relationships with information are constructed in society and what role they play in society. Some practice theory at this level is concerned with power distributions and there might be fruitful areas to explore in the relationship of information and power.

It will be obvious that I do not view behaviour and practice as being in opposition, but neither do I view them as having equal theoretical status. If we are to use practice as an analytical concept we need to define it rigorously – not for all time, of course, but at least for the purposes of any given investigation. If we wish to emphasise the social dimension of practice, it would give rise to different questions than if we chose to explore routines or habits and, as I hinted in my review, by introducing practice as an analytical concept we can begin to ask interesting questions, such as: How does habitual behaviour in respect of information develop? What role does information play in the development of work routines? How do changes in habitual information seeking occur? And so on. However, those questions cannot arise if we simply propose that the word practice should replace the word behaviour in our discourse.

I shall now give Reijo the last word: we publicized the discussion in the hope that others might join in and comment. But that appears to have been a vain hope, but I imagine that someone is making a note of the URL for future reference in a paper ☺

05 April 2009

OA and copyright

There's a bit of a buzz in the OA world about a video journal, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, leaving the OA domain and becoming a subscription journal. The reason, essentially, was that the editors couldn't find a business model to allow them to continue as purely OA - although individuals can get a one-day free subscription.

In his blog Common Knowledge, John Wilibanks suggests that
If you don't use a permissive copyright license you are not an Open Access publisher. JoVE was never OA. They simply weren't charging for their publications. JoVE was shareware, and the bill's come due.

Now, by permissive he appears to mean that the user can use the content in any way s/he wishes, but quotes in support of this proposition the Budapest Open Access Initiative statement that
The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

However, giving the author these rights, does not imply that the user should have the total right to do whatever s/he wishes with the content. If the author retains copyright, as Information Research authors do, it is up to the author to determine what should be done with his or her work. A journal publisher cannot allow the author to retain copyright and then encourage infringement of this copyright by suggesting that users of the material may do whatever they wish with it. (Slightly revised 17 Apr 2009)

03 April 2009

The electronic textbook

Peter Suber reports a paper in Nature - accessible only to subscribers - on the potential of the electronic open access text-book. I'm surprised that this has not developed sooner - I was forecasting back in 1995 that one of the first things to go open access would be the text book. And it hasn't happened.

I still find it curious: most text book authors decide to write a new one because they find the existing ones imperfect, from their point of view. They trial material with their own students (often mentioning this in a dedication) and then try to sell it in a market already packed with text books. I put the search terms "statistical" and "introduction" into Amazon.com and it came up with 8,393 results Who actually needs another introduction to statistics?

So, instead of chopping down the trees - when, given the odds, it is likely that only your own students are going to benefit, why not create an open access text and invite others of like mind to contribute? Build in links to Websites and OA journals and you'll have a richer resource for your students (and more easily kept up-to-date) than any print on paper version.

Come to think of it - and putting my money where my mouth is - if there is anyone out there who would like to collaborate on an "introduction to modern information management", please get in touch. I'll be happy to create a site at InformationR.net and take it from there.