CIS book preface

We live in a society where information is, without a doubt, a powerful force. This statement may sound like a cliche, but it always amazes me how often we forget. May be that’s the purpose (or should be) of the technology that surrounds such information. The other aspect of information technology that amazes me is the fact that it is so new, considering human history. The clock that tells us the precise time of the day dates back only to the sixteenth century. The base 10 numbering system is only 500 years old, and mechanical devices used to calculate and present information have existed for only a couple of centuries. Of course, today when we say “information technology”, we are probably thinking about computers and other digital devices, and they are merely a few decades old.

What intrigues me the most is how we have been able to integrate such new concepts and technologies with long-standing human behavior. Take for example, working in groups and living as a society. This behavior has proven to be extremely important for the survival and prosperity of our species. Back in the days of hunting together to today’s office work, mankind has understood the need to work and thrive together. It is this behavior – the one of collaborating with each other – that has made it possible to achieve great feats in the history. How else can one man (or woman) build the pyramids or crack the human genetics code.

Of course, not all problems call for people working together. While Einstein had help and drew inspirations from others, he did come up with many significant findings himself. Leonardo de Vinci and Picasso, similarly, worked alone. Claude Shannon, considered to be the father of digital information age, was known to have worked in solitude behind closed doors. But let’s put geniuses aside and talk about the remaining 99.99% of us (which of course, still includes a lot of smart people!). We do, often need to work in collaboration. I’m sure even Einstein needed help placing his furniture in his Princeton house; he was a genius, not a superhuman!

This book is about those times when people work in collaboration – an eternal human behavior, in the light of new and innovative technologies in the information age that we live in. More precisely, it is concerned about situations pertaining to information retrieval/seeking/sense-making where people are collaborating or should be collaborating.

One may ask – Why this book? Why now? There is a simple two-fold answer to both these questions. Using technology to understand and support collaborative behavior has been around for a while – what is known as Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), but it is in the recent years that we have seen more specialized attention given to applying CSCW methods and frameworks for information seeking situations. On the other hand, the field of Information Retrieval (IR, or broadly speaking IS, information seeking) has found (or re-realized) the importance of considering social and collaborative aspects of search, synthesis, and information use.

This has led to a newly developed interest in the field that is still emerging at the intersection of several other well-established fields, including CSCW, IR, HCI, and social media/networking. This book as an attempt to introduce the relatively young domain of collaborative information seeking (CIS) research by discussing how it came to be, what it currently offers, and where it is headed next. The best part is that we all get to define and contribute to this future.

Personally, my journey on this path started during the summer of 2007 when I was an intern at FXPAL, working with Gene Golovchinsky and Jeremy Pickens. Back then, we worked on something called Collaborative Exploratory Search (CES), and argued that IR systems need to have “smart” components that could mediate collaborative activities and produce results that are “better” than any individual IR process. And we succeeded with at least one kind of situation (time-limited, recall-oriented task with two people collaborating under assumed roles). We did continue this work further by identifying more situations and defining other roles, but as I returned to UNC and continued working on my dissertation, I started moving in the direction of user-mediated collaboration. My dissertation provided a framework (among other things) for studying and supporting user-focused CIS. I have continued working on various aspects of CIS (both user and system sides) as a faculty at Rutgers University. In the meantime, I have also participated in a number of professional events around CIS, including half a dozen workshops – two of which I co-organized.

This book is a culmination of all of these experiences, and while they have made me biased on the topic, I have tried my best to incorporate others’ views as well. In the end, my hope is that those working in this domain, and the larger field of IR see this book as a record of modern day CIS research that has tried to incorporate many view-points and contributions to inform those looking for a comprehensive treatment of this topic, along with wonderful opportunities (and challenges) it presents.

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