Wednesday, 16 May 2012

"So what's Information Science then?": Do people outside the department know what we do, and if not, does it matter? (by Simon Wakeling)

A couple of weeks ago I was booked to juggle at a small event in Sheffield, along with a couple of other jugglers whom I'd not met before. As I chatted to one of them before we started manipulating our balls, the following exchange occurred:

Him: So what do you do?
Me: I'm a student at Sheffield.
Him: Oh right, I'm a student at Sheffield too. What subject do you do?
Me: Well broadly speaking it's Information Science.
Him: Information Science? What's that then?
Me: [Some stuff about Information Science]
Him (looking suspicious / confused): Oh, OK. I'm a third year computer scientist.
Me: Ah well we're in the same building then.
Him: Really??

So here is someone who works in the same building as our department every day, in a related subject, but who has never heard of Information Science as a discipline, and has no idea what its students and researchers do. Is this representative of a wider lack of awareness and understanding of our discipline? I suspect it is.

Why then this ignorance? Is it a problem of terminology (Information Studies vs Information Science vs Informatics vs Library and Information Science vs Information Schools), or the lack of any such department in most UK universities (or for that matter the lack of an Information Science GCSE)? Is it the inter-disciplinary nature of our field, which defies simple summary? Does the often practical or vocational focus of our research and teaching dilute our standing in academia?

And whatever the reasons, should we be worried about it? Knowing broadly what a Mathematics department "is" hardly gives the non-mathematician any meaningful understanding of modern mathematical research. Similarly it seems unlikely that my juggling friend would have any keener appreciation of Chemoinfomatics for me having introduced him to the concept of Information Science. In a sense then general ignorance of the IS field is merely an annoyance, something that requires an extra sentence or two of explanation during small-talk. But is it also possible that this anecdotal evidence points to a more fundamental challenge for our field? It might perhaps imply that we need do a better job of unifying and presenting the disparate strands of our work within a grander (theoretical?) framework. It's either that or ask Bill Bryson to write a book about us...

1 comment:

  1. I like to signpost the iSchool as 'the biggest department in the Uni that you've never heard of.' But then I currently work in interdisciplinary health technology research, aka, 'the biggest group in ScHARR that you've never heard of (in ScHARR)/ let me explain what ScHARR is (outside ScHARR)'.

    I'm not sure we're the only ones with an identity crisis...