ASIS&T 2006 START Conference Manager    

Analyzing uncertainty tolerance in information discovery and use

Theresa Dirndorfer Anderson

ASIS&T Annual Meeting - 2006 (ASIS&T 2006)
Austin, Texas, November 3-9, 2006


This short paper/poster discusses the role uncertainty plays in judgments of the meaning and significance of ideas and texts encountered by scholars working with networked information systems. Uncertainty is often associated with risk, fear and danger. However, the perception and strategic use of uncertainty can be both a positive and negative influence on behavior. This poster discusses an investigation of the nature of uncertainty in the context of scholarly research and the use of networked information systems in the ongoing research activities of two informants. What forms do positive and negative perceptions of uncertainty take in this context? How much uncertainty are people in such a context prepared to tolerate? The themes presented here are based on a process-oriented, longitudinal study of these judgments. This poster invites discussion about the complexity surrounding searcher experiences of uncertainty by demonstrating how working through uncertainty becomes a mediating strategy for knowledge generation.

While many researchers have acknowledged uncertainty can have positive effects, there is very little research detailing these positive impacts and analyzing the potential interplay between positive and negative experiences of uncertainty. The investigation presented in this poster seeks to fill this gap by exploring the dynamic interplay between positive and negative forms of uncertainty in information seeking and research activities.

This study draws on two years of ethnographic field work involving two scholars engaged in the discovery, evaluation, use and generation of information and knowledge as part of their own ongoing research work. Analysis of informants’ experiences raises interesting questions about how much uncertainty scholars may be prepared to tolerate in their searching and wider research activities. What allows some challenges associated with uncertainty to be welcomed as signs informants were getting somewhere in their work rather than as anxiety-laden obstacles? To begin to answer this question, uncertainty observed in informants’ experiences was charted in relation to the stages of information seeking as portrayed by Kuhlthau (2004) and Vakkari(1999). For the conference, the extended short paper/poster will include an expanded version of the table presented in this submission that analyses the positive and negative forms of uncertainty that contributed to informants’ research and information seeking success. It will also include samples from informants’ comments to illustrate outward signs of uncertainty such as expressions of doubt, ambiguity, indecision or a lack of confidence in making a judgment.

This study suggests that tolerating uncertainty serves a critical function in innovative or cutting-edge research and therefore warrants support in information systems design. The holistic experience of both the positive and negative forms of uncertainty shape a searcher’s ability to tolerate challenging encounters within their information and research processes. Acknowledging this complex positive-negative blend has implications for system design. Process-oriented analyses like the study presented here can contribute to system support for uncertainty tolerances by informing the design of customized system responses.

START Conference Manager (V2.52.6)