|Expanding Access to Science and Technology (UNU, 1994, 462 pages)|
|Session 3: New technologies and media for information retrieval and transfer|
|Information retrieval: Theory, experiment, and operational systems|
A recent experiment investigated various aspects of searching or Information-seeking behaviour, including the behaviour of repeated users of the system . The system was accessible over the network in an academic environment and was available to many users through terminals on their desks or very close by. There was no direct cost to using the system, and since it is very easy to use (being designed so that someone walking in off the street could be expected to be able to use it), there was no barrier of any kind to its repeated and frequent use. Individual users were logged.
What was found was that a number of users made repeated use of the system, quite often (surprisingly) starting with a query that was very similar to or even absolutely identical to their previous query. It is clear that they were not simply asking the same question again, but rather using the entry point that they already knew about as a way into this somewhat unfamiliar country, a familiar starting point for a new exploration. Relevance feedback (which is just one of the mechanisms of which they might make use) is not a matter of saying "this is correct," but rather of saying, "supposing we try this direction, where will it take us?"
Thus it seems that starting with a theoretical approach based on a traditional, input-output model of IR has led us to methods and techniques that fit very well with the ASK hypothesis and a problem-solving or exploratory view of IR. We have arrived at the right answer, but for the wrong reasons!
There are, of course, researchers in the field who are entitled to say "I told you so!" Examples include Oddy's THOMAS system and Swanson's view of retrieval as a trial-and-error process . However, we do now have evidence that we are capable of providing information retrieval systems that can have a genuine impact on information-seeking behaviour in a broad sense. One task that faces us is to develop our methods and ideas of evaluation to take into account this broader view. We, researchers in information retrieval, need to know much more about how users (including scientists and technologists) approach their information-seeking or problem-solving tasks, preferably over a period of time rather than simply in response to a suddenly perceived information need .
Indeed, I have found it instructive now to revisit some work that was (when it was undertaken) right outside the field of information retrieval: T.J. Allen's work on communication in science and engineering . What is critical here is the user's perception of his or her information environment and the sources and channels of communication that are open. One of Allen's conclusions concerned the relative importance of informal as against formal channels. The more we can design systems that appear to the user to be less formal, perhaps the better we shall be able to serve him or her. An information retrieval system should be as accessible and as easy to communicate with as a colleague in the next office; only then will the real breakthrough occur.