I first met professor (emeritus) Tom D. Wilson in the mid-nineties, when there was close contact between British library schools and the library school in Oslo. He was and is one of the central figueres in our field – and I share many of his concerns about the way library (and information) research (or studies or science) is conceptualized.
Below, I quote some central paragraphs from his paper Philosophical foundations and research relevance: issues for information research (delivered as keynote address to CoLIS4 – Fourth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Emerging Frameworks and Method, University of Washington, Seattle, USA, July 21 to 25, 2002):
I have never perceived ‘librarianship and information science’ (LIS) as a single discipline and I began to think of why it cannot be.
… The proposition that research in the information field (LIS for short) lacks cohesion is, I think, fairly obvious. There are very few areas in which continuous research over a period of years has tackled specific problems, or sought an understanding of particular phenomena.
Information retrieval is one of them and even here there are different groups, often non-competing, and often engaging in their work oblivious to work on related areas.
… Information behaviour research is another area where there is some degree of cohesion around models and methods that have won some support (e.g., Wilson, 1981, 1999; Dervin, 1992; Kuhlthau, 1994) and, in that field, there is, perhaps, a developing consensus on an appropriate framework for investigation.
Why is there a lack of cohesion and connection? My own answer to this question is very simple: we do not have a single ‘research object’ – certainly, we are all interested in ‘information’, but that is not a single phenomenon, as reference to the theory of integrative levels can show.
… The choice of an appropriate research method should be determined by a combination of the philosophical position of the researcher vis-a-vis the research objectives, the nature of the problem to be explored, its novelty in research terms, and the time and resources available to carry out the work.
The leap that students, in particular, make from statement of the problem to data collection without the benefit of a perspective to guide either the choice of problem or the choice of method is one of the principal reasons for the relatively low level of a great deal of research in the field.
… method without a philosophical framework that determines why a particular method is employed and what view of reality the researcher holds, is purely mechanistic.
… I have commented elsewhere, and more than once, that the attention given to the use of information has been much less than that given to, for example, information seeking and information searching.
Wilson points out that information systems research suffers from the same fragmentation – and refers to Benbasat and Zmud (1999) – who explored, ‘why most IS academic research today lacks relevance to practice’
The reasons they adduce are interesting for us, falling as they do into the following categories:
an emphasis on rigour over relevance; that is, a concern to establish an academic discipline on the traditional model, rather than seeking to address the concerns of information system practitioners;
lack of a cumulative tradition; partly because of the diverse nature of the information systems field and its related research, making it difficult for one specialist even to understand the work of another;
the dynamism of technology; which adds uncertainty and complexity to the field and results in researchers ‘chasing after practice rather than leading practice’;
limited exposure to relevant contexts; ‘In order that IS research be relevant, IS researchers must in some form or another be exposed to the practical contexts where IT-related usage and management behaviors unfold.
For many IS-academicians, such exposure tends to occur infrequently and, when it does occur, tends to be insufficiently targeted, insufficiently rich, or both.’; and, finally,
institutional and political factors; meaning, briefly, that in many situations tenure and promotion decisions, as well as the grant-awarding policies of various agencies, assume attention to rigour, rather than to relevance.