Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      September 1999 Volume XXII Number 2

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Is information technology a universal toolbox holding applications that are useful to anyone in any situation? Or is the picture more complicated, with people choosing to accept some technologies and reject others based on complex social and cultural factors? Rob Kling, professor of information science and information systems at Indiana University Bloomington, knows that the latter is more valid. "Information technology applications can be enormously helpful when they facilitate the work that people want to do. But to be successful, new electronic communication methods must be congruent with the social practices of different work worlds," Kling says.

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Doctoral students (from left to right) Geoff McKim, Joanna Fortuna (both in the School of Library and Information Science), and Ya-Ching Lee (Telecommunications) discuss their collecting data about scientific communications in molecular biology and high energy physics with Rob Kling, professor of information science and systems and director of the Center for Social Informatics at Indiana University Bloomington. --credit

Kling directs the Center for Social Informatics, which he founded in 1996 with the support of Blaise Cronin, dean of the School of Library and Information Science. The center supports research into such issues as social factors influencing information technology use and how information technology changes the way we work. As the role and complexity of electronic communication technologies continue to grow, social informatics research can help institutions, companies, and policy makers decide the best ways to use new communication capabilities.

Social informatics is a new name for a field that has been around for more than twenty five years, according to Kling. He notes that many of the center's fellows were at IU when he arrived, but most were not aware of each other's research. The center gathered existing researchers and created a site that is becoming nationally recognized in social informatics research and that serves as a magnet to attract students. The center provides "a forum for people to get together and to discuss their research interests," Kling says. Fellows meet twice a month to discuss their work and share thoughts on practical issues like funding opportunities. They also present working papers exploring issues such as public digital libraries and intellectual freedom, online communities, electronic community networks, and electronic publishing. In 1997, Howard Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of library and information science, and Kling organized an National Science Foundation-funded workshop on social informatics that brought thirty researchers from North America to the center.

Social informatics is a highly interdisciplinary field, and the membership of the center reflects that fact. About one-third of the fellows are SLIS faculty and several are from the Kelley School of Business. Others come from a range of disciplines, including the School of Education, the Department of Political Science, the Cognitive Science Program, the School of Journalism, the Department of Telecommunications, and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Several graduate students from these disciplines also participate in the center.

One example of social informatics research is the Scholarly Communication and Information Technology project (SCIT). Kling works with Jeffrey Hart, a professor of political science, and Geoff McKim, a graduate student in SLIS, on this investigation into how scholars use electronic means to communicate. The National Science Foundation funds SCIT as part of its Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence initiative, which promotes the ability of scientists and professionals to use new technologies to more effectively share knowledge.

Scientists use a range of information technologies to share information, announce their results, and collaborate. Physicists first publish their research as "electronic working papers" at one of a few special Web sites (such as http://xxx.lanl.gov). Molecular biologists at IUB maintain FlyBase, a database of genetic information on fruit flies and citations for biologists. Protein chemists use a database of protein structure information. Computer scientists who are members of the Association for Computer Machinery can access a repository of articles published in association journals. In some fields, new electronic journals have been established or existing journals made available, to varying degrees, online.

The SCIT project will try to answer questions like: How do different fields shape the use of information technologies for their communications? How do different fields define "publication," and how do they regulate information flow so that they can trust their information sources? How do these issues affect what types of technology a discipline will use or avoid? Instead of viewing electronic communications as the toolbox from which every discipline can use each tool, the SCIT project will investigate the social and cultural factors that influence whether technologies are adopted or rejected and how scholars shape technology for their own communications.

Whether they are studying scholars or business managers or home computer users, the fellows of the center are all trying to understand the ways people and groups work with information technology. Information technology is a major investment in financial and human terms, and social informatics research can help in the choice of the best tool from an ever-growing array of possibilities. --Mary Hrovat

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