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The Use of Technical Literature by Industrial Technologists

CHRISTOPHER SCOTT

Planning the storage of scientific information in such a way as to optimize the efficiency of retrieval requires, above all, a knowledge of the needs of the user of this information. What kind of information does the user want? How much does he already know about the information he is seeking before he begins his search? Even if he knows his best strategy for retrieval, will he be willing to use it, or will he be held back by habits, prejudices or any other of the innumerable irrational motives which are known to influence human behaviour?

Once stated in this form, the problem is seen to involve the treatment as a single unit of the information storage system and its user. Further, the user has his own storage system, the human brain. Though the storage capacity of this organ for technical information is small compared with that of a library, it is extremely well organized for rapid retrieval. The problem therefore becomes that of the optimum allocation of the load between two very different types of system, one mechanical, the other biological. In solving it, the former system may be regarded as variable, but almost everything about the latter system is virtually fixed, including the nature of its lines of communication with the former system. This may appear pessimistic, but it follows simply from the fact that human brains live in societies with a high degree of inertia. In more concrete terms, any practical plans for changing the mechanical storage system must not presuppose a radical change in the habits of the user of scientific information. No doubt over a period of generations he can and will be modified; but if we are interested in the next decade or two we had better take the scientist broadly as we find him and build our system of information storage around him.

It thus becomes of crucial importance to study the working scientist and technologist and to examine the role of scientific information in his work. The present paper is offered as a contribution to this field; it is an account of some

CHRISTOPHER SCOTT Central Office of Information, The Social Survey, London.



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--> The Use of Technical Literature by Industrial Technologists CHRISTOPHER SCOTT Planning the storage of scientific information in such a way as to optimize the efficiency of retrieval requires, above all, a knowledge of the needs of the user of this information. What kind of information does the user want? How much does he already know about the information he is seeking before he begins his search? Even if he knows his best strategy for retrieval, will he be willing to use it, or will he be held back by habits, prejudices or any other of the innumerable irrational motives which are known to influence human behaviour? Once stated in this form, the problem is seen to involve the treatment as a single unit of the information storage system and its user. Further, the user has his own storage system, the human brain. Though the storage capacity of this organ for technical information is small compared with that of a library, it is extremely well organized for rapid retrieval. The problem therefore becomes that of the optimum allocation of the load between two very different types of system, one mechanical, the other biological. In solving it, the former system may be regarded as variable, but almost everything about the latter system is virtually fixed, including the nature of its lines of communication with the former system. This may appear pessimistic, but it follows simply from the fact that human brains live in societies with a high degree of inertia. In more concrete terms, any practical plans for changing the mechanical storage system must not presuppose a radical change in the habits of the user of scientific information. No doubt over a period of generations he can and will be modified; but if we are interested in the next decade or two we had better take the scientist broadly as we find him and build our system of information storage around him. It thus becomes of crucial importance to study the working scientist and technologist and to examine the role of scientific information in his work. The present paper is offered as a contribution to this field; it is an account of some CHRISTOPHER SCOTT Central Office of Information, The Social Survey, London.

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--> results of an enquiry carried out in the United Kingdom by the Government Social Survey for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.1 Design of the Survey2 One of the primary difficulties in a study of this kind is the wide variety of activities in which different scientists and technologists are professionally engaged. A reasonable homogeneity in the population studied is essential for meaningful results. The present enquiry was severely limited in its coverage, and was thereby enabled to probe more deeply into motives and attitudes. Thus, the population studied was that of technologists in the British electrical and electronics industry. This industry was chosen as one employing a high proportion of technical personnel and known to have a high consumption of technical literature. Industrial technologists were chosen rather than theoretical scientists because they are much more numerous and, even if their per capita consumption of technical information is lower, taken together almost certainly account for the greater part of the demand for such information. Data on academic scientists, in some respects comparable with our own on technologists, were obtained by Bernal in a well-known study in 1948. Despite the above severe limitations of coverage, the population so defined was still very far from homogeneous in its activities, as will be seen below. The needs of the user of technical information have been examined in many studies in the United States and Britain, but among these a direct approach to the user himself has been comparatively rare. In the present enquiry the user was approached by interview. A set form of questions was employed by trained interviewers, who were individually briefed and tested on their understanding of the instructions. The duration of the interview was up to one hour. The sample of establishments was limited to those of medium size (200–1,000 employees). All such establishments in the industry concerned were 1   Responsibility for the views expressed in this paper is that of the author alone. 2   The study was designed and supervised by Leslie T.Wilkins, formerly of the Social Survey. The present author is responsible for the analysis and report. Acknowledgment is due in particular to Mr. Saul Herner, who originated some of the questions used in the interview. The full report of this Survey is the property of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. It was too long for submission as a paper to this Conference. In drawing up the present abstract a choice had to be made between giving enough information to allow the reader to judge the validity of the conclusions but limiting the conclusions themselves to a selected one or two, and reporting all the main conclusions with no more than a sketch of the evidence supporting them. As this was an exploratory study and the evidence could not in any case be more than suggestive, it was felt that the second procedure would be of more interest. It must be emphasised, however, that the conclusions cannot at present be regarded as fully confirmed. The most that is claimed is that they are of sufficient interest to warrant the carrying out of further and more intensive studies.

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--> sampled, but the sample was confined to certain regions of the country, which together contained about one-half of the total national population of such establishments. One hundred and sixty establishments were approached in this first stage of the sampling, of which 127 agreed to cooperate. A response bias in favour of the use of technical literature seems a likely result, though the probable effect on the individual interviewee would be small. A random sample of the technologists within each establishment was selected, giving a total sample of 1,082 persons. The term “technologist” was broadly interpreted, and covered all persons engaged in research, whether qualified or not, all those with technical qualifications, and all those responsible for planning and development work. A detailed definition of this population was drawn up, and the administration of the establishment selected was asked to prepare a list of all such employees at the establishment. From this list the sample of individuals was drawn by means of random numbers, using a fixed (except for rounding) sampling fraction of 1/40. Some details of these sampling arrangements were dictated by administrative considerations. It cannot be claimed that the resulting sample strictly represents any “population” in any rigorous proportional way; it does, however, have a wide geographical spread and covers the whole range of technical activities from foreman level to research director. The principal characteristics of the sample so selected were the following: Median age: 35. Those engaged in management duties averaged about 10 years older than those in research and development. Median time in the present post up to date: 3 to 4 years. Median time in the present firm up to date: 7 to 8 years. Median experience in present category of employment: 8 to 9 years. In the whole sample, 17% held degrees, 22% held some technical qualification but no degree, while 61% had no academic or technical qualifications. Management were about average in this respect. Among research workers 28% had degrees; among the production-supervision group, 6%. It will be seen that the level of qualifications is low. It can be safely said, however, that every person in the sample was involved in duties to which the possession of technical information would be relevant. The Findings It is hoped to publish the detailed findings of this survey in due course. In the present paper we can give no more than a brief summary.

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--> 1. A GENERAL ACTIVITY FACTOR AMONG TECHNOLOGISTS A large number of the findings of this study can be summarized by listing those characteristics of the individuals in our sample which were found to intercorrelate positively. The list below contains 24 items. Not all the possible correlations between pairs of items were examined; nevertheless a considerable number were, and there are very few items whose inclusion in the list depends on a correlation with only one other item. Thus there is good reason to suppose that if the full 24×24 correlation matrix had been calculated it would contain very few negative values.3 Characteristics of technologists found to be positively intercorrelated4 BACKGROUND Holds academic or technical qualifications Below average age READING Sees many journals regularly Has read or scanned many journals in last year Can recall a useful article read Knows of abstracts Would refer to literature as first step to get technical information Did refer to literature as first step to solve current problem TENDS TO READ JOURNALS WHICH: Are not strictly within the electrical and engineering field Are difficult Appear at relatively long intervals Contain many pages of text Contain few pages of advertising Contain reports of fundamental work Do not contain review articles, book reviews, etc. Do not contain news of equipment 3   Item 24 on this list is known to have three small negative correlations with certain of the journal characteristics (10, 12, and 16). Items 2 and 3 are also negatively correlated (because managers tend both to be older and to see more journals). These are the only instances of correlations between two items on the list which are known to be negative. 4   The brief descriptions in this list do not adequately define the form in which the information was obtained. For fuller information reference should be made to the interview schedule, which is reproduced as an appendix to this paper. Items 1 to 20 in the list are based on the informants’ claims. Items 9 to 18 are based on assessments by a qualified librarian of the particular journals which informants claimed to have read or scanned. Item 22 was based on an independent assessment of the “current problem” as described by the respondent.

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--> Do not contain social news (appointments, meetings, etc.) Do not contain advertisements for jobs OTHER INFORMATION-SEEKING ACTIVITIES Attends meetings of technical or scientific societies Attends conferences or courses GENERAL ACTIVITY Claims to be currently working on a problem Current problem is of a research (as opposed to production or administrative) nature Quotes source external to himself when asked main stimulus for new ideas Recalls useful ideas or information arising from chance event The existence of a positive relationship between so many variables implies a general factor common to them all,5 and it seems reasonable to regard this as a factor representing the degree of activity of a technologist in his work. If this is so, then it is justifiable to regard a positive position on any of these variables as the desirable position, in the sense of the position characteristic of the more active technologist. This gives us a tentative framework within which to judge other results. 2. THE AMOUNT AND NATURE OF TECHNICAL READING The median number of journals claimed as “seen regularly” was 4 per person. Ten percent claimed to see none. The median number claimed as “read or scanned in the last year” was 6 different journals. The latter is based on a prompt list of 98 of the most widely read journals in the field of electricity, electronics, and general engineering, and we shall use this question as the basis for our further conclusions about readership. The journals listed were classified by a librarian, and journal characteristics were cross-tabulated against reader characteristics. The type of journal found to be read by the more “active” technologist has already been described in the preceding section. It was found that the “better” journals, in this sense, were also the least popular; in other words, the number of readers and the level of reader bear opposite relationships to the type of journal. The journals thus follow roughly the same pattern as general newspapers and magazines. The average journal on the list was read by 8% of the sample. The average percentage readership varied, of course, with the journal characteristic. Among those characteristics examined, that which corresponded with the highest readership (15%) was “contains 60 or more pages carrying advertisements 5   A formal factor analysis was in fact carried out on part of the data and the existence of a general factor demonstrated.

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--> only” (which perhaps shows no more than that advertisers know their business), while the lowest (4%) was “appears less often than monthly.” Respondents were asked to say how thoroughly they read the journals they claimed to see regularly. Did they read at least one article, scan, search the index, or look only at the advertisements? Only a very slight tendency was found for those who saw more journals to read them less thoroughly. This seems to suggest that a technologist’s reading is not seriously limited by shortage of time. Depth of reading was, however, closely related to the source of supply of the journal. Journals paid for by the reader were more likely to be read thoroughly. From these data, and by making some further assumptions, it was possible to arrive at a tentative estimate of the importance to the technologist of the journals supplied to him by his firm. Thus, among journals seen, but not paid for by the reader, in about one-half of the cases he reads at least one article per issue; in about one-sixth he averages less than one article per issue but nevertheless believes that he derives appreciable value from what he does see; and in about one-third he derives little value from the journal and apparently only sees it because he does not have to pay for it. The place of reading was also asked, and the responses are shown in Table 1. TABLE 1 “Where do you do most of your technical reading?” Place of reading Number Percent At home 643 59 At place of work 288 27 At home or at place of work 67 6 In a library 31 3 In trains 23 2 Others 6 1 Does no technical reading 24 2 Total 1082 100 TABLE 2 Reference Number Percent Scientific, technical or trade journal 565 52 Advertisements 83 8 Leaflets 37 3 Newspapers 34 3 Books, handbooks 28 3 Abstracts, digests 16 1 Reprints, offprints 8 1 Miscellaneous 2 — Cannot recall such article 309 29 Total 1082 100

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--> Respondents were further asked: “Can you recall the most recent article in any paper, journal, pamphlet, etc., that was of direct use or special interest to you?” The source of the article was asked, and the answers are shown classified in Table 2. It will be noted that 29 percent could recall no such article. When a reference was given, the respondent was asked to state how his attention had been drawn to the article. Table 3 shows a classification of the replies. The 309 who could recall no article are excluded. TABLE 3 “How was your attention drawn to this article?”   Number Percent Colleagues within the establishment or firm 149 19 Persons outside 65 8 Persons unspecified 26 3 Reference in journal or book 37 5 Abstracts 28 4 Mass media 5 2 Attention was not drawn: Searched in literature 139 18 Came across it by chance 324 41 Total 773 100 Note. A response was classified in one of the first three categories only if the article itself had been recommended. These results would appear to have considerable importance. Note first that, despite the wording of the question, more than 40 percent denied that their article had been specifically sought and stated that it had been met with “by chance” in the course of routine reading. This emphasizes the value to a technologist of maintaining a high level of activity in technical reading. Secondly we see that nearly one recalled article in three was specifically recommended to the respondent by some other person. It seems to follow that personal contacts between technologists should be encouraged to the maximum, and that the value of these contacts lies not merely in the passing on of technical information itself but in the communication of references to sources of information. 3. ABSTRACTS, MEETINGS, AND OTHER INFORMATION SOURCES A series of questions was asked on the use of abstracts. These are shown in Table 4 with the number of persons giving each response. A considerable majority said that they knew of no relevant abstracts; of those who did know of them many said they did not use them; of those who claimed to use them one-third could give no evidence of having done so recently. We are left with 224 individuals, or 21% of the sample, who were able to give at least one identifiable title of an abstracting periodical in their

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--> own field which they had used during the last quarter year. In reality it is probably safe to say that, for the great majority in the sample, abstracts relevant to their work were in existence. This percentage did not vary significantly between different age groups, but TABLE 4 Question Answer Number Percent of total asked Percent of sample Do you know of any abstracts in your special field? Yes 414 38 38 No 668 62   Total asked   1,082 100   If yes Do you make use of abstracts? Yes 335 81 31   No 79 19   Total asked   414 100   If yes Which have you used in the last quarter year? Identifiable title 224 67 21 No identifiable title 63 19   None 48 14   Total asked   335 100   it did depend on the nature of the informant’s duties. Thus, for those engaged in research it was 28%, in management 24% and in production supervision 13%. The claim to read abstracts was one of the most diagnostic items in differentiating technologists of high and low activity, in the sense defined in Section 1 above. It is perhaps disturbing, then, to consider that even among those employed in research duties less than half were aware of the existence of abstracts and less than one-third had used them recently. Finally we inquired how abstracts are used by those who do use them. The 335 persons who claimed to use abstracts were asked: “Do you use these for searches or for news of current developments?” Table 5 shows the responses. We shall be referring to these results in the next section. TABLE 5 Use made of abstracts Use Number Percent Searches wholly or mainly 71 21 News wholly or mainly 142 43 Both about equally 114 34 No answer 8 2 Total 335 100 Attendance at meetings of scientific and technical societies was also ex-

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--> amined. The percentage claiming to attend at least sometimes varied from 62 among those with academic or technical qualifications to 25 among those without, the mean for the whole sample being 40%. Those who claimed to attend meetings were asked: “Would you say that you obtain a significant amount of information or ideas from these meetings?” Of those asked, a total of 32% said that they did not obtain significant information from meetings. This figure rises to 38% among the research group, compared with 24% among the management and production supervision groups. This seems to imply a rather high degree of dissatisfaction with such meetings, particularly among the research workers. It is interesting to contrast this with our previous findings regarding attendance at meetings: that attendance correlates positively with qualifications and many of the other characteristics of the more active technologist. Apparently the active technologist attends meetings, but does so, in many cases, without any faith in their value to him. On our present data we cannot say why this should be. Perhaps he attends from a sense of duty, perhaps to maintain personal contacts, or, more vaguely, to “keep in touch.” Or it may be that those who answered negatively would not have denied that meetings were of value to them, but did not regard meetings as a significant source of information. It seems obvious that this would be worth further study; whether or not meetings are worth while, they appear to be fulfilling a function at least somewhat different from that which is conventionally supposed. The survey examined the exposure of the technologist to a wide variety of other sources of information—newspapers, radio, television, exhibitions, books, etc. Here the results are less clear-cut and could not justifiably be quoted without lengthy discussion and reservations. 4. THE ROLE OF THE LITERATURE IN THE TECHNOLOGIST’S WORK There would be little point in determining how much the technologist reads without also determining whether his reading is relevant to the work he does. To assume that because he reads technical literature during working hours his reading must help him in his work would be naive. It is crucial, in fact, to know whether (a) Some technologists read and others do not, irrespective of the technical problem on which they are working, or (b) Some problems induce reading and others do not, irrespective of the technologists working on them. These are, of course, two extreme hypotheses, and it seems likely even before we see the evidence that the truth lies somewhere between them; nevertheless they are worth mentioning here as possibilities in order to remind us how little we can take for granted in the present state of our ignorance in this field.

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--> This question was approached in the present enquiry by asking the technologist first to describe the problem on which he was currently working and then to say what was his first step in tackling it. Subsequently he described the second step, the third step, and the most recent step. Reference to the literature was given as the first step in 12% of cases, as the second in 5%, as the third in 3%, and as the most recent in 2%. The implications of these figures will be considered later; for the moment we are concerned with examining how the percentage varied with the type of problem and the type of person working on it. For this analysis we limited our attention to the “first step,” as the only one in which reference to the literature was common enough to supply adequate data. Since the type of problem and the type of person are, inevitably, related the analysis was complex and cannot be given in detail here. The results were by no means conclusive and it must be emphasized that further confirmation will be required. However, for what they are worth, they suggested that whether reference was made to the literature depended both on the problem and on the problem solver, but rather more on the solver than on the problem. The problems concerned varied widely—from pure research at one extreme to strictly administrative problems at the other. The fact that this variation had no more effect on reference to the literature than did the variation between people suggests as a possible thesis that the value of the technical literature in the solution of particular problems was by no means self-evident to the technologists themselves. Returning now to the figures just quoted, we note that reference to the literature as a reported first step in the solution of a problem was far from common. When it did occur, it was nearly always the first step; as a later step it was so rare as to be almost negligible. It is interesting to contrast this finding with the results of another question in which respondents were asked by what TABLE 6 Source Number of responses Percent of responses Percent of persons Written material of any kind 625 33 60 Intuition, “thought”—no external source admitted to 436 23 40 Personal contacts (informal) 372 19 34 Observationa or experiment 252 13 24 Lectures, meetings—formal contacts 102 5 9 Trade exhibitions 46 2 4 Requirements of job, or of customer 28 1 2 Unclassifiable 48 3 4 Don’t know, no answer 24 1 2 Total 1933 100 179 a Includes observation of other firms’ products, processes, etc.

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--> means they got most of their ideas or stimulation for new ideas on improvements or new methods. Responses are classified in Table 6. (Many respondents gave more than one answer.) Thus we now find 60% of respondents mentioning the technical literature as one of the most important sources of their ideas. This finding can be reconciled with the results of the former question by supposing that the main function of the technical literature is not that of a reference source for consultation but a primary source of stimulation. In other words, the technologist reads for general interest and to keep up to date; only much less often does he use the literature for reference. This finding, if correct, is of considerable significance, and it would be un-wise to accept it on the evidence of a single pair of questions. Let us examine, therefore, how well it is supported by other lines of evidence. In Section 2 above we saw that 41% of articles recalled and considered useful had been met with by chance in the course of routine reading. A further 30% were seen as a result of a specific personal recommendation. All those deliberately consulted by our informant on his own initiative in order to find a definite piece of information must be found among the remaining 29%—and it is unlikely that they constitute the whole of this number. Again, in Section 3 we gave some data on the use and knowledge of abstracts and we showed that only 21% of the sample were able to give the title of an abstracting journal which they claimed to have used during the last quarter year. Since abstracts are the main device for facilitating the consultation of journals, this alone suggests that our informants were not very much concerned with using the technical literature for consultation. But the point is made even more impressively when we look at the data in Section 3 on the purposes for which abstracts were used. Here we found that they were used very much more often for news than for searches. Thus even the principal aid to the consultation of technical literature serves more for news than for consultation. Finally we may mention some findings on libraries. It was found that more than half of those whose firm had a library did not use it. Of those who did use libraries few were dissatisfied, although by what seem to be reasonable criteria the libraries within British industry are generally regarded as seriously inadequate and very little use is made of external libraries. This suggests that our informants were not really concerned about libraries, and this becomes explicable if they regard the technical literature not as a fund of information to be consulted but as a source of primary stimulation. As long as they see their favourite journals as they appear, either through their own subscription or through the firm’s circulation list, they are reasonably satisfied. There is thus considerable circumstantial evidence for the hypothesis that the literature is used very much more for news than for reference. It is perhaps fair

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--> to suggest that anyone familiar with the working methods of technologists and applied scientists will not find this conclusion surprising. Implications This study throws some fresh light on the role of the technical literature in the work of the technologist or at least of the technologist working in the electrical industry. It is suggested that the principal role of the literature is to supply useful information which is not being deliberately sought by the reader. Compared with this, its role as a reference source is a good deal less significant. Much work remains to be done to clarify, and put into quantitative terms, the relative significance of these two roles. Nevertheless it is already clear that any approach which takes it for granted that the reader of technical literature is typically engaged in a search for some particular piece of information is seriously out of touch with reality. At the beginning of this paper it was suggested that the technical reader had certain habits in his approach to technical information, and that any attempt to improve the means of communicating such information to him must be built around these habits as they are, rather than presuppose that they can be changed within any reasonable time span. This claim may have seemed unduly pessimistic, but its intention will now perhaps be clearer: if it is true that the technologist, when reading, is seldom searching for anything, but is reading for whatever he may find, then it seems clear that any improvement in the organisation of the literature for reference will be of relatively marginal value in increasing the amount of communication. Much more might be achieved by contriving that the important material be presented to the technologist in the place where he will see it in his routine reading and in the manner in which it will attract his interest. If this is so, then the information specialist has perhaps been expecting too much help from the technical reader, for he has seen his job as that of supplying the technical reader with any information he asks for. But, as Bernal has pointed out, his task is much more than that: it is to give the reader the information he needs, whether he asks for it or not. Further, if this information is to be conveyed to a reader who is not deliberately seeking it, it is arguable that more attention should be paid to the purely journalistic arts in the presentation of technical literature. Seen in this light, the two most important tasks are the choice and the presentation of the material to be communicated to technologists. Many interesting conclusions follow, from which we select one that is particularly obvious: the key position in the organisation of technical information would seem to be that of the editor of the technical journal.

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--> APPENDIX Interview schedule Main Schedule Firm’s Classification Sheet Record Sheet for Question 13 Prompt List and Recording Sheet for Question 14 Prompt Cards MAIN SCHEDULE

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--> INTERVIEWER’S RECORDING SHEET FOR QUESTION 13

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