vol. 16 no. 3, September, 2011


The first international workshop on opportunistic discovery of information

Carol E. Smith
University of Central Missouri, James C. Kirkpatrick Library, JCKL 2464, Warrensburg, MO 64093
C. Sean Burns
University of Missouri, School of Information Science & Learning Technologies, 111 London Hall, Columbia, MO 65211

The University of Missouri, Columbia U.S. held the First International Workshop on Opportunistic Discovery of Information on October 21-22, 2010. This opportunity allowed leading researchers to exchange ideas about a field of specialization that is drawing increased interest from academic and commercial quarters. A grant awarded by the University of Missouri’s Mizzou Advantage programme made the two-day gathering possible. These strategic initiative grants promote and foster interdisciplinary scholarly relationships. Seventeen researchers from Canada, Finland, Japan, U.K., and U.S. gathered to share their recent work and discuss how they study opportunistic discovery of information in the context of online searching, news reading,entrepreneurial innovation, personality characteristics, scientific discoveries, and other areas.

Day One

The workshop commenced the morning of October 21, 2010 with a lively 90-minute opening session held at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Dr. Sanda Erdelez from the School of Information Science and Learning Technology, University of Missouri, and representatives of the Mizzou Advantage grants initiative started with opening remarks and participant introductions. The participants then spoke for several minutes and shared their research endeavours with the full group. The session revealed a broad spectrum of research activity. Several workshop participants study the opportunistic information discovery processes for particular user groups and fields, including architects (Stephann Makri, University College London), journalism (Kevin Wise, University of Missouri), children (Jamshid Beheshti, University of Toronto), and business (Ann Cullen, Simmons College). Others focus on specific information environments such as social media (Jacquelyn Burkell, Anabel Quan-Haase, and Victoria Rubin, University of Ontario) and online information seeking (Sanda Erdelez and Borchuluun Yadamsuren, University of Missouri).

Research efforts increasingly delve into the processes underling information discovery, such as Makiko Miwa’s (Open University of Japan) detailed examination of information discovery during Web searching and Elaine Tom’s (Dalhousie University) research on visual cues. Lori McCay-Peet (Dalhousie University) explores a more inclusive range of serendipity triggers. Her research also reveals the relationship between the timing of a trigger event and its influence on process. Jannica Heinström’s (Åbo Akademi University) work, which generated a significant amount of interest from the group, focuses on how personality influences opportunistic information discovery. Discussion included how the specialization’s position fits within the larger human information behaviour field. Naresh Agarwal (Simmons College), in particular, discussed how opportunistic discovery of information has largely been left out of human information behaviour’s established frameworks.

Finally, the University of Missouri’s Opportunistic Discovery of Information Research Group is engaged in multidisciplinary explorations (Sanda Erdelez, Guilherme DeSouza, Antonie Stam, Chi-Ren Shyu, and Kevin Wise), examining ways in which opportunistic discovery of information manifests in fields as diverse as journalism, computer science, engineering, and business. They are currently developing a measurement instrument to assess an individual’s tendency to experience and engage in opportunistic information discovery events.

The question and answer period following the opening session revealed a tremendous interest in each other’s research and chosen methodologies. In particular, discussions focused on whether opportunistic discovery of information can be actively taught, how it relates to creative behaviour, and the methodological challenges associated with Web analytic data.

After the opening session, University of Missouri graduate students presented posters about their research interests in opportunistic discovery of information. Research proposals addressed areas as diverse as medical image retrieval, geographic information systems, information literacy, religious beliefs, and online shopping. Workshop attendees engaged, guided, and provided valuable feedback to the students.

Undoubtedly, the liveliest engagement took place during the first day's working lunch session. Because the emerging field wrestles with a non-standardized lexicon, Sanda Erdelez proposed an exercise to help resolve the challenge of conflicting terminology. Each participant first listed commonly used and related professional terms and then ranked these terms by how meaningful they considered them (see Figure 1). Next, the researchers reviewed, discussed, and grouped the conceptual relationships of each term on a white board. The discussion ranged freely and revealed a wealth of framework issues for the field. For example, the relationships among chance, fate, and intention to opportunistic discovery of information experiences involved lengthy discussion. The participants also considered the perceived versus actual utility to serendipitous encounters. During a summary of the working session’s output, the researchers identified four key elements: how opportunistic discovery of information presents itself, potential outcomes of information discovery, the emotional or affective aspects of information discovery, and the perceptual component of information discovery. In the end, they agreed that “opportunistic discovery of information” should be the preferred field's term but that a host of other terminology-related issues needed resolution in future forums.

Following a post-lunch tour of a campus lab used for opportunistic discovery-related experiments, the day resumed with an afternoon meeting devoted to sharing research methodologies. Antonie Stam led the session with a round-table exchange and discussion of various methods. The methods ranged from eye tracking to lab observation and included various mixed-method approaches. Dr. Stam proposed an online forum where researchers could share methodological information, foster collegial networking, and encourage collaboration. The online forum could also be used to help develop consistent approaches and measurement instruments. The idea met with broad approval, with the provision that participants agree to mutual guidelines for citing the contributions of others and for offering co-authoring opportunities when appropriate.

word cloud

Figure 1. A word cloud depicting terminology used during the workshop.

Day Two

While the discussions and presentations from the previous day concentrated on terminology and methodologies for the field, this day's discussions, divided into a morning and an afternoon session, primarily focused on philosophical and pragmatical issues. Sanda Erdelez initiated and framed the morning's discussion with two forward intending questions: what is our research agenda and what is the agenda for our collective collaboration?

Three broad topics emerged. First, the participants expressed concern about identifying an appropriate and unique domain of study---one that would conceptually separate the field from related areas in information science, such as those associated with human information behaviour, sense-making, human computer interaction, as well as information retrieval. Second, participants discussed definitional issues surrounding serendipity and information and how those issues might be addressed within the context of research into opportunistic discovery of information. Third, participants weighed in on several pragmatic issues related to funding, to practical constraints on gaining access to the type of people the group would like to study (e.g., entrepreneurs), and to possible systems and application development.

To develop relevant research questions and to initiate data gathering, the afternoon session focused on conceptual issues and how to frame them properly. The discussion focused on a time and stage-based model of opportunistic information discovery. The group explored ways that would foster an understanding of the basic process that might be modeled. For example, under the explicit assumption that a necessary condition for opportunistic information discovery is an information need, some members of the group identified information needs as an important research entry point. Others, such as Elaine Toms, noted the conceptual difficulty with need and its multiple, and often inconsistent, uses in information science. Lori McCay-Peet spoke about issues with assigning a universality to need, especially one that required a certain mental state . Others in the group, such as Jamshid Beheshti, discussed affective and cognitive traits in the opportunistic information discovery process as well as the affective reactions, those possible “aha” or "oh no" moments. This spawned discussion on the interactive element between information and a person, a consideration supported by Victoria Rubin and Sanda Erdelez.

The discussion turned again to definition. Stephann Makri argued that it is presently unlikely to single out any definition but that there is some promise if the group focuses on facets of serendipity instead. Such facets might include the fortuitous, the unexpected, the accidental, the incidental, the opportunistic, and the sagacious. He spoke about furthering the concept as if it were a kind of continuum closely associated with outcomes that are themselves tied to perception.


The First International Workshop on Opportunistic Discovery of Information provided an essential forum for the exchange of ideas in this newly emerging specialization for human information behaviour research. Attendees were so enthused about the discussions and opportunities to forge connections with the research of others that plans for a second gathering in Canada in 2012 were being formed by the end of the event.


This work was supported by Mizzou Advantage research initiative, University of Missouri, USA.

About the authors

Carol Smith is Assistant Professor of Library Services / Technology Initiatives Librarian at the James C. Kirkpatrick Library, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, MO. She is currently working on a Ph.D. in Information Science and Learning Technologies at the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies (SISLT), University of Central Missouri – Columbia. She can be contacted at csmith@ucmo.edu .
C. Sean Burns is a doctoral student at the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies and an adjunct technical services librarian at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, USA. He can be reached at csbc74@mail.mizzou.edu .

How to cite this paper

Smith, C. & Burns, C.S. (2011). "The first international workshop on opportunistic discovery of information", 16(3) paper 490. [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/16-3/paper490.html]

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