B U L L E T I N
Looking Hard at JASIS&T: Results of a Series of Surveys, Focus Group Interviews and Other Studies
Donald O. Case is professor, SLIS, University of Kentucky, 502 King Library Building S, Lexington, KY 40506; 606-357-8415; firstname.lastname@example.org
Suzanne L. Allard is assistant professor, School of Information Sciences in the College of Communication & Information, University of Tennessee, 302 Communications Building, Knoxville TN 37996-0332; 865-974-1379; email@example.com
In the summer of 2000, we began a series of studies to better understand the readership of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIS&T), as well as the membership of its sponsoring Society. Those studies, completed in 2003, included two focus group interviews with ASIS&T members and former members, an archival study of 380 JASIS&T authors, an online survey of non-member contributors to the Journal, and a mail survey of 1,121 readers of other information technology publications. Altogether, the surveys include responses from a total of 1,265 people.
These investigations offer empirical confirmation of some observations made earlier by long-time ASIS&T members. For example, many ASIS&T members may be aware that non-members are unsure of the Society's makeup and identity. They also know that many ASIS&T members find JASIS&T to be "too technical." Yet the research results may also provide ASIS&T leadership with a clearer picture of the dynamic relationships that exist within ASIS&T membership and between ASIS&T and other associations. This information is beneficial as it adds perspective on how to build on the strengths of ASIS&T, such as JASIS&T, and how to address other areas that may require additional attention.
Guiding Questions. A number of questions guided our efforts. Some of these reflect ideas that we developed, some came from JASIS&T Editorial Board members, and yet others from the Journal's publisher, John Wiley & Sons. The questions, along with sources for answers, are reflected in Table One.
Each of the guiding questions is addressed in some depth below. We present our findings in two parts: the first section describes the series of four small-scale investigations of JASIS&T readers, members, former members and contributors. The second section presents results of a large-scale mail survey of readers of other IT journals, only 4% of whom were ASIS&T members (hence we characterize them as chiefly "non-members").
Part One: Readers and Members
Who are ASIS&T members and JASIS&T readers? ASIS&T is a highly diverse society. It is composed of information professionals from many walks of life: librarians, database searchers, information architects, knowledge managers, vendor representatives, corporate information specialists, industry researchers and university faculty, to name just a few groups. Neither the public nor the private sector dominates ASIS&T membership.
We interviewed 25 ASIS&T members and two former ASIS&T members, mostly from private firms and public universities, many of whom were also members of the Special Libraries Association.
Some members have characterized the ASIS&T membership as being split between "practitioners" and "academics," with the former in the majority. Whatever the validity of the "practitioners" versus "academics" characterization, this report will make use of that distinction, because it is one that many respondents tended to make and explains some of the divergent opinions we documented.
What is the role of JASIS&T in the life of the Society? JASIS&T is a flagship for the Society. Most practitioners are proud of it but few of them read much of it. JASIS&T is perceived as a highly technical, research publication, but with limited value to practitioners and most of the membership. Most do not want to see JASIS&T changed but they'd like to receive a different kind of publication in addition, even if only in electronic form.
ASIS&T should consider means by which they can reinforce the value of JASIS&T to the practitioner members of ASIS&T, who, after all, are in the majority. For example, emphasize in published statements and advertising the various ways that JASIS&T promotes the profession and highlights the hottest topics and latest trends.
What do members get out of reading JASIS&T? Practitioners use JASIS&T to keep up with current trends and jargon so they can communicate with technical personnel within their organization and justify expenditures for new services, technology or projects. Academics get a respected, refereed journal that contains research and evidence of interest to them. It is also an outlet for publishing their own research.
What other publications do members read? Practitioners prefer industry- and professionally-oriented publications like Library Journal, Information Outlook, KM World, Knowledge Management and Information Today. Many read general publications like Wired and Fast Company. Some also read Communications of the ACM. Academics read Communications of the ACM and Information Processing and Management, among other publications.
What parts of JASIS&T do members actually read? Relatively few practitioners read JASIS&T articles, unless they are part of a Special Topics issue of particular interest. Some read book reviews and letters to the editor, which they find to be in plain language and more applicable. They do see JASIS&T as covering the right topics, simply at more theoretical level than they can use.
Academics read some of the feature articles. Non-member contributors to JASIS&T, for example, on average read two or three articles per year. We assume that contributors who are members are likely to read articles more frequently.
What do ASIS&T members want to read about? Practitioners are most interested in practical information about information architecture, digital libraries, knowledge management, Internet and database searching, information retrieval and usability issues. Contributors were not asked a parallel question, but judging by other responses are interested in research and development on similar topics.
What is the role of electronic publications? Many practitioners endorse the idea of an online journal aimed at their needs – something searchable and immediate in content. They do not, however, want any electronic publication to be a vehicle for a lot of advertising.
Who are JASIS&T contributors? Only about a third of JASIS&T contributors are members of ASIS&T, and that ratio has been steady for many years. Contrary to a perception among practitioners that most JASIS&T articles have been written by authors affiliated with library and information science programs, only about 20% are written by LIS faculty. A similar proportion of authors are from computer science departments.
On the whole, JASIS&T authors are heavily "academic" – nearly 90% of 311 respondents to the online survey were from academic organizations, a slight overrepresentation of their actual numbers. Contributors who are not members of ASIS&T typically belonged to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
What other journals do JASIS&T contributors read? Non-member contributors typically read Communications of the ACM (CACM), Information Processing & Management (IP&M) and Proceedings of ACM SIGIR. Some also read IEEE Computer, the Journal of Information Science (JIS), and the Journal of Documentation (JDoc). Presumably this pattern is similar for contributors who are ASIS&T members.
Where else do JASIS&T authors publish? Non-member contributors also publish in IP&M, Proceedings of ACM SIGIR, CACM, and the JDoc. The chief competitor for readers is ACM, while the major competitor for contributions is IP&M. Many say they do not see JASIS&T as having an identity that is distinct from some other journals.
Why are many JASIS&T contributors not members? It is notable that many non-members nevertheless see JASIS&T as an important place to publish their research. Most non-members note that there are other associations that better reflect their interests. Some also cite the cost of ASIS&T membership and conference fees, while those living outside North America think that other associations give them more opportunities to be involved. About 10% of those we contacted were currently considering joining ASIS&T.
What are some ways to expand readership and membership? Among these contributors the chief competitors were the Special Libraries Association and the ACM. About five years ago ACM realigned the focus of their Communications to better serve the 80% of ACM members who are practitioners rather than academics. Perhaps ASIS&T could do the same with a new publication (not JASIS&T).
Clearly JASIS&T is a highly successful journal in the eyes of both academics and practitioners. However, many practitioners suggest that ASIS&T could publish more content of interest to them. The Bulletin is seen more as "membership news" than as content geared to practitioners. A new type of publication could address this need and serve as a vehicle for "branding" the Society.
Part Two: Non-Members
We wanted to learn about the attitudes and reading habits of individuals who were not ASIS&T members but whose professional interests suggest that they were potential JASIS&T readers. We were particularly interested in readers of various professional journals in information technology.
The Sample and Procedures. Finding a good sampling frame for such a population turned out to be challenging. For over a year we explored various subscriber and membership lists and discovered two things:
Eventually we pulled together a combined sampling frame made up of several subscriber lists, including 7,169 subscribers to Online and KM World, plus a contingent of 17,797 ACM members with self-described interests in digital libraries and information retrieval. These readers were the population for the mail survey.
In Fall 2002, a service bureau hired by the Professional/Trade Group of John Wiley & Sons mailed out a survey questionnaire to these 24,966 readers of information technology journals. The survey instrument had been designed over the previous two years, based on a series of focus groups with, and surveys of, ASIS&T members and JASIS&T contributors. To encourage completion, respondents were offered a chance to win one of three prizes (a notebook computer or one of two models of PDA) if they responded by December 15, 2002. Return postage for the survey was prepaid.
The Results of the Mail Survey of Non-Readers/Members. A total of 1121 completed surveys (a 4.5% response rate) were received by late January 2003. Although the response rate may seem low, it was higher than that usually obtained in publisher surveys of this sort, in which returns typically run from a high of six percent (with hefty incentives) to a low of two percent (more typical). In any event, the results are valuable because they do represent a substantial number of people and they provide an in-depth look at individual reader attitudes beyond simply knowing the names of publications to which they subscribe.
The typical respondent held either a Master's or Ph.D. degree in computer science and worked either as an educator/researcher or as a programmer/analyst – although a wide variety of other degree fields and job titles were also present in the sample. The sample was approximately 80% male. The majority (55%) were between the ages of 35 and 54, and another 28% were under 35 years of age. Respondents were widely distributed across the United States.
A summary of their responses follows.
Many respondents had positive things to say about the organization, including praise for members they had met, ASIS&T conferences and JASIS&T. The criticisms made of ASIS&T are probably already familiar to many members even if not very well founded: mainly for librarians, too theoretical, too narrow in scope. More disturbing is that some respondents had heard of ASIS&T but did not know it was the new name for the old "ASIS," suggesting that the organization needs to publicize the name change.
The majority of comments about the Journal were very positive, praising the quality of the articles. The criticisms typically had to do with being too esoteric, academic and theoretical, or too focused on information retrieval, digital libraries and the like. It was apparent from some comments that many respondents had not looked at an issue of JASIS&T in a long time.
What can we take away from these investigations? This research did not address basic membership issues, yet the results do, indirectly, raise issues about the Society's image. More concretely the research points out some publication-related improvements that could be made. These might in turn favorably impact the membership. In conjunction with the Society's recent membership survey, ASIS&T leadership now has more evidence to work with in making improvements.
The overall conclusion that we have reached is that the Society has a very healthy flagship publication, JASIS&T, but that the Society itself needs reinvigoration and publicity. The most positive news is that the Society's journal, JASIS&T, is widely respected, both by members and non-members who know of it. Even ASIS&T members who find JASIS&T of limited practical value do not wish to see it change. Publications could play a role in addressing the key issues of membership and identity, which are more fundamental. ASIS&T should consider ways to increase the value of the society to existing practitioner members, means of attracting new members and of making the concerns of the Society known to a larger audience. As it is, many people in the IT workforce do not know of the Society or they misunderstand what it is about.
Potential reactions include doing a better job of advertising the Society, what it stands for and who should join. In terms of attracting a wider audience, it is critical that prospective members understand that the Society includes computer scientists and professionals from the business sector. Current impressions that ASIS&T is mainly an organization for librarians and information retrieval specialists are a major barrier to recruiting members from other groups.
ASIS&T should consider developing a magazine that attracts a wider, non-technical readership. Such a publication would be about the topics that concern ASIS&T, rather than about the organization itself, and would be geared more towards practitioners. If a new ASIS&T publication is pursued it should include regularly appearing features and columns – for example, interviews with prominent ASIS&T members and current JASIS&T authors, pointing readers toward their full work in recent JASIS&T issues. Perhaps the current JASIS&T book reviews section could be moved to a new publication, or, alternatively, a new venue for shorter reviews could be included in a new publication. Another vehicle, successfully used at times in the Bulletin, would be short articles about research being conducted, or trends, services or applications in development. Such items would not provide the detailed descriptions of results that normally appear in JASIS&T.
However the market for information technology publications has been in decline, so efforts in the direction of a new publication may need to await improvements in the general economy. Nevertheless, the slump in IT
represents an opportunity for ASIS&T to make it self more relevant to a broader audience, some of whom are searching for new jobs and associations.
Table One: Questions about JASIS&T Readers and Authors
Copyright © 2004, American Society for Information Science and Technology