vol. 20 no. 3, September, 2015

A new direction in information science research: making information science a human science

Sylvain K. Cibangu
Loughborough University, Centre for Information Management, School of Business and Economics, Richard Morris Building, Loughborough, LE 11, 3TU, United Kingdom

Introduction. The term human is a core concept of information science literature. However, information science authors have hardly discussed the term. Consequently, what is and is not human remains unclear. The purpose of this paper is to bring consideration of human conditions to the centre stage of information science research.
Method. To ascertain the place of humans in the body of work pertaining to information science, the paper undertakes a content analysis of over 800 articles published between 2011 and 2012 in five major journals of information science, and outlines some research consequences.
Results. Six current humanist research themes were identified from the content analysis.
Conclusions. The paper suggests a new direction for information science authors, which will enable information science to go past the functionality of systems and the optimization of information seeking to engage with the fuller actualization of humans. The goal is to drill deeper in the structures of oppression and vulnerability to allow the worst-off individuals to be well-off. We cannot help our readers as a human species by shunning the concept human.


Information science is distinguished from other fields by its unabashed focus on the human component of information, its production, its distribution and its use (Beam, 1983; Buckland, 2012; Kline, 2006; Saracevic, 1992, 1999; Wegner, 1983). However, though successful attempts have been made to incorporate user-centred and human friendly systems, the system movement has only taken more resilient and subtle forms behind the façade of modern day systems such as social media, e-books, emails, social networks, digital libraries, second life, e-learning, cloud computing, etc., making the effects of technologies upon humans more systemic and restrictive than ever before. For much of the literature, the information sources or systems have remained the premier focus of research (Case, 2012). What eclipses information science's identity is the publications produced in information science venues primarily by authors of information-related disciplines such as Web development, Web design, usability engineering, computer science, information and communication technologies for development, computer human interaction, human computer interaction, etc. These and similar publications hardly make explicit their contribution(s) to the identity and literature of information science. Rather, research articles tend be produced as reportage on novel information technologies and consumers' access. Examples of such research articles are described below, with information and communication technologies being the leading concept:

This paper calls information science authors to go beyond the functionality of information systems and related behaviour to engage with the contributions of information science to the discussions on humans and their flourishing. After the introduction, the paper comprises six steps: (1) problem statement, (2) literature review, (3) methodology, (4) results, (5) discussion and (6) limitations. Lastly, a conclusion is provided.

Problem statement

The present paper is a critique of the extent to which information science authors contribute to and hold views on the topic of humans. The underlying research question looked at is: how can the access to, interaction with or innovation of information technologies improve the quality of life? Answers to these and similar questions can be found in the views held on humans. For example, as is obvious from the literature, positivism has its way of viewing information research and topics, which differs from that of interpretivism (see Case, 2012; Fidel, 2012). For positivist proponents, the advancement of information systems is understood to be the same as that of humans whereas interpretivists tend to conflate the advancement of humans with the manifestation and interpretation of meaning that information systems are drawn upon. On this note, Hjørland (2014) observed,

Information science is sometimes confused with information technology and with computer science and is seen by some people as being primarily about information technology and computers. One indication of this is that, in the year 2000, the American Society for Information Science decided to add "and Technology" to its name. Another is the tendency to merge departments of library and information science] with departments of computer science. A third indication is that a core subfield, information retrieval, is dominated by the computer science community [emphasis added]. (p. 213)

It is important to be mindful of this state of affairs to better grasp and criticize the positions of information science literature which aim to discuss human conditions. Humans cannot fulfill their potentials nor function to the fullest if certain conditions are not met, such as health, justice, equity, education, shelter, safety, food, etc. (Sen, 1979, 1985, 1987, 1997a , 1997b , 1998, 1999, 2009, 2013). The goal of research is not so much an exhaustive list of human conditions as it is the awareness about them to improve human life. Information science is a human science which means that it engages with the improvement of people's lives, especially the lives of the poor and vulnerable.

The sharp disconnect of published works with information science literature and ensuing discussions (details below) is a factor to which sustained attention should be paid since it is preventing information science from testing and creating theories on humans and their fuller actualisation. Therefore, the problem addressed in this study is the need to discuss what the term human means in information science articles, which will form a basis for a new direction in information science.

Literature review

Information science was established as a field in the aftermath of World War II (Bates and Maack, 2010; Saracevic, 1970, 1992, 1999, 2010a, 2010b), but an early 19th century information science pioneer, Otlet (1895, 1914, 1934, 1935), devoted his works on information to the welfare of humans. In 1948, Farradane (1948) and Urquhart (1948) each reflected on the human use of scientific and technical information. Farradane first used the expression information science in 1953 and information scientist in 1955. It can be noted in passing that despite the United Nation's proclamation of universal human rights in December 1948 (The Universal Declaration, 1948), information science research has given little to no attention to the topic of human rights. This indifference, though not always acknowledged, has had far-reaching effects on information science literature (see the findings). Although Farradane developed a quantitative and physical notion of information science, he put humans to the forefront of the information field, with terms such as information service, information profession, information work and information officer (Farradane, 1948, 1953, 1954). Taylor (1962) presented a model of information analysis that centres exclusively on the information needs of human beings (e.g., within or inner need, visceral need and compromised need). Parker (1966) recommended that the (information) systems be adapted to users.

In 1970, in one of the first critical reviews of information science, Saracevic provided the landscape of new areas of research that were concerned with humans. Saracevic wrote,

That people greatly affect systems of which they are a part and vice versa is clearly not a hypothesis but a tautological statement. But the questions of how and to what extent these effects take place are questions that many sciences have asked and investigated. New areas have been opened - human engineering, man-machine interaction, organizational behavior, human factors in systems analysis and operations research, etc. Of special significance to information science are investigations in the general area of the effects of humans on systems and effects of systems on humans [emphasis added]. (1970, p. 538)

In information science, special emphasis is placed on the effects of humans on information systems and vice versa. That study outlined the blueprint of information science as a human science. 'What is the relationship between the physical, semantic and behavioral theories about the nature of "information" as a basic phenomenon?' (Saracevic, 1970, p. xiv). Note the holistic view of information phenomena. One cannot discount the physical, semantic and behavioural disciplines. Therefore, Saracevic noted a tension, saying: 'A tension leading to non-communication exists among basic scientists, applied scientists, technologists and practitioners, each claiming the field [of information science] as being solely his area while ignoring (or at times downgrading) the work of others' (1970, p. xiv). It was and is not uncommon to see the field of information science being claimed as technical or human, depending on the preference and emphasis of the author. In essence, since its inception, information science displayed an unequivocally human-friendly penchant. Dervin proposed (1976) a framework with which to research human information needs, which later would be called the sense-making method.

The earliest articulated reflection about human characteristics in information science literature goes back to Brookes. In 1980, Brookes noted,

The use of these numerals [of quantitative analysis] has provided analytical instruments which, though ideally adapted to the exploration and explication of the physical world, fail to capture important aspects of the individuality of response within [emphasis in original] groups which humans display. (1980b, p. 209)

Individuality characterises humans in their everyday behaviour. The tendency of numerals and quantification propelled by quantitative studies are shown to mislead the understanding of humans.

Dervin (1983) presented information as a user construct whereas Wilson (1983) outlined the cognitive processes of information. At this point, cognitive aspects of information, modelled on the physical sciences, came to dominate information science literature and placed the emphasis, to the discontentment of Saracevic (1970), on the effects of individuals on the information systems. Studies on users and needs proliferated. Frohmann (1992a) took issue with the cognitive viewpoint, the leading line of thought in library and information science, since it championed the commodification of humans. Another version of this article can be found in the Journal of Documentation (see Frohmann, 1992b). In an overall review, Saracevic (1992) distinguished two major trails of research in information science:

the human-technology relation is the principal weakly defined, unresolved philosophical, scientific, and professional issue in information science. Information science has vacillated between the two ends - human and technological - never to take a strong commitment to either end or to strike a comfortable balance. While there is lately a clear swing of the pendulum toward the human side of the equation, the technological end is still the tail that swings the whole field, and not only this field - it looks like it is swinging the whole information society. (p. 20)

Still lacking at this point, emphasis on the human dimensions is not intended to deny the importance of technologies. While the complexity of human existence is mentioned, failures of information systems disconnected from human aspects are acknowledged. Pertinently, Saracevic (1992) declared,

Decades long experiences with numerous technological solutions to access and use of information (some even dazzling, elegant, and most convenient) are bringing forth a creeping, sobering realization of how little we actually know a formal sense about the human (social, institutional, individual.) aspects and behavior related to knowledge and information and furthermore, how many of the assumptions about the these human aspects and behavior on the basis of which technology applications are designed, do not hold. (p. 20)

As more work was needed about human existence, the tendency to investigate and improve information technologies rather than humans was still dominant. 'A philosophy prevails that it is easier to teach and adjust humans, i.e., fit the human to the system rather than vice versa' (Saracevic, 1992, p. 21). As apparent below, today, the remark still holds true. In 1996, Wilson noted that:

on one hand, we occupy a field of engineering and development. On the other, we occupy a field of social, behavioral and humanistic studies. (That clumsy phrase is the best we can do in the United States. Europeans might simply speak of the human sciences.) This is not a traditional view of our field, but I think it is an accurate view of what the field is becoming and has already in part become. The extreme differences between a branch of engineering and a branch of the human sciences are enough to explain much of the contention over the nature of our field. It does not have a single nature. It has at least two natures even with respect to research and development. (1996a, p. 319)

As is clear from the statement, the social sciences and humanities were considered interchangeable under the banner of humanistic perspective. For the purposes of computing technologies, Gershon (1995) coined the phrase 'human information interaction' to focus on how humans relate to information.

To the extent that the technological trend continued to dominate the field, Buckland (1996) warned, 'I suggest that any view of LIS is incomplete and lacking in coherence if it could not [emphasis in original] include a liberal arts program.' Liberal arts include the humanistic perspectives. Buckland (1996) explained,

I suggest that the general emphasis on professionally useful education discourages interest in the field of LIS itself [emphasis in original], in the nature of information and information technology, and in the intellectual history of LIS because there are always more apparently useful agenda. Information Science has been notoriously a-historical, at best mythic, until quite recently. We should recognize the CoLIS 1 [conceptions of LIS] conference in Tampere in 1991 for its exceptional inclusion of humanistic and historical perspectives. This collective amnesia [of humanistic and historical perspectives] has at least two disadvantages. First, as a practical matter, interesting ideas that lack immediate perceived utility are likely to be forgotten. Second, there is a continuing loss of identity.

The historical perspective is a perspective wherein the actions and institutions of the past impact and sometimes dictate people's behaviour. Therefore, consultation of prior work is important (Wilson, 1996b). Without a concerted and cohesive literature, a science has no identity. The humanistic perspective concerns all dimensions of human existence. Buckland (1996) asserted, 'economic, political, social, legal, and cultural issues are abundant and prominent in so many ways that the opportunities for liberal arts LIS courses far exceed the resources of any school to provide them.' The subjects or areas of information science can attest to the all-encompassing humanistic perspective. 'The history of humanity becomes the history of information processing within a social context' (Rayward, 1996, p. 4). In his study, Buckland presented cultural dimensions as an illustration of humanistic perspectives in information science. Not surprisingly, a few years later, in different terms, Buckland (1999) insisted,

A consequence for the "computational tradition" of information science is that special attention needs to be paid to non-computational aspects: to human behavior (information seeking, information avoiding, and the use and creation of documents); to human understanding and believing; and to the complex social characteristics of application areas in private, public, and nonprofit sectors. (p. 974)

Details of human existence are integral parts of information research. Saracevic (1999) clarified, 'but the issue is not whether we should have systems- or human-centered approaches. The issue is even less of human- versus systems-centered. In other words, the issue is putting the human in the loop to build better algorithms [emphasis in original]' (p. 1058). The centrality of human existence concerns all academic work, regardless of what camp researchers claim to belong to.

In 2000, in his milestone study of information behaviour, Wilson stressed, 'information behavior is the totality of human behavior in relation to sources and channels of information, including both active and passive information seeking, and information use [emphasis in original]' (2000, p. 49). The statement highlights the totality of human behaviour. Wilson's use of the phrase human behaviour is not as experimental as it might seem. Wilson (2000) elaborated, 'information use behavior consists of the physical and mental acts involved in incorporating the information found into the person's existing knowledge base [emphasis in original]' (p. 50). Calls for emphasis on the human concept continued to be made. Raber (2003) remarked, 'information science calls itself a science, but it will do well to remember that its purposes are essentially human' (p. 67). Information systems appeared to attract research centres and authors in the field of information science. 'We must keep in mind that the study of information and its management is a means to the end of solving the general problems of human existence' (Raber, 2003, p. 9). This reminder resonates with the humanistic holistic view of technologies and humans discussed earlier. From various fronts, Dervin (2003a , 2003b, 2003c, 2003d, 2003e) presented the then dominant sense-making method, which in turn was heavily influenced by cognitive behaviour aka user studies. At another level, Johnson (2003) noted the lack of interest to context. Context is important to humans and their fulfilment.

Spink and Cole (2004) presented a human information approach to the philosophy of information. Fisher, Erdelez and McKechnie (2005) outlined the theories of human information behaviour, with a clearly human-centred view of information science and its research. At this point, the use of the term information behaviour as synonymous with human information behaviour was largely established in information science literature. However, in 2006, the lack of human sense and everyday life was noted. 'The information seeking approach has been challenged by the everyday life information seeking approach that includes more consideration of human [emphasis added] sense making behaviors and more nonacademic and less-formal information seeking behaviors' (Spink and Cole, 2006, p. 27). Sense making behaviour dominated a large portion of information science.

In 2003 and 2005, the World Summit for the information society (2003) held a twin world-wide symposium: in Geneva 10-12 December 2003 and in Tunis 16-18 November 2005, with a focus more exclusively on the information society with regard to humans and their potential and conditions. A clear commitment and belief that information technologies be the fodder of human wellbeing was made. The members of the summit proclaimed,

We, the representatives of the peoples of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential and improving their quality of life [emphasis added]. (World Summit for the Information Society, 2003, see section Declaration of Principles, No 1)

Information technologies were believed to be the tools with which, not only to interact or communicate, but to achieve the full potential of individuals and societies and improve the quality of life. The members of the summit went on, saying: 'We recognize that education, knowledge, information and communication are at the core of human progress, endeavour and well-being. Further, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have an immense impact on virtually all aspects of our lives' (World Summit for the Information Society, 2003, see section Declaration of Principles, No 7).

As noted earlier, a book on the theories of human information behaviour was published mid-2000s (Fisher, Erdelez and McKechnie, 2005), and research was undertaken on the status of the discipline, its knowledge base and identity (Bates, 2005a, 2005b; Hjørland, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c, 2005d). What is striking about the book on information theories is that it did not engage with the themes launched in Geneva in 2003 at the World Summit for the information society, regarding particularly human conditions. No subsequent edition of the book has been written ever since. On this account, the field of information science cannot compare with its sister discipline, communication studies, which is now in its 10th edition of Theories of Human Communication (Littlejohn and Foss, 2011). The first edition was written in 1974 (see Littlejohn and Foss, 2011, p. xi), not to mention other books written in the intervening years on different aspects of the theories of communication (see Anderson, 1996; Miller, 2005; Peters, 1999). The most important work worth mentioning here is that of Johannesen, Valde and Whedbee (2008) on the ethics of communication, which is in its 6th edition. Note that the field of information science does not have a single book or edition on the ethics of information, an important topic of human existence. The centrality of human nature was clearly stated by Littlejohn and Foss (2011): 'as long as people have wondered about the world, they have been intrigued by the mysteries of human nature' (p. 3). It is puzzling that the mysteries of human nature, not to mention the suffering of fellow humans, have not intrigued information science authors.

The year 2006 saw the issue of humans-involving information raised in an official forum or teaching of information science. As it was apparent in Riga, Latvia, on a discussion regarding the theoretical status of information science, 'all research (and even all thinking) is always made from a point of view (or a theory, or background knowledge)' (Hjørland, 2006a, p. 2). The points of view reflect the ways in which humans and their issues were still being disregarded owing to the dominance of positivistic and technologist perspectives. It follows that information is considered always in relation to some possible (human) problems. Shedding further light on the debate, Hjørland (2006b ) insisted, 'to consider something information is thus always to consider it as informative in relation to some possible questions [emphasis in original]' (p. 32). However, the human dimension has yet to be explicitly addressed. Unfortunately, the field of information science does not have an academic review to highlight and connect the pieces of (prior) work done in the course of years and needed for human or methodological discussions.

Nahl and Bilal (2007) spoke of the affective revolution wherein one makes sense of information from emotions and feelings. For example, Saracevic (2007a, 2007b) showed the field of relevance to be a variant of sense making behaviour. In 2008, calls for a shift toward the context of information phenomena were reiterated. 'Thus the proponents of information practice emphasize the role of contextual factors that orient people's information seeking, use and sharing as distinct from the individualist and decontextualized that are seen to be characteristic of the assumptions "information behavior"' (Savolainen, 2008, p. 4). In 2009, however, the suggestion to study context still needed attention. In fact, despite strident remarks, Johnson (2009) and Fisher and Julien (2009) noted a continual inattention to context. Context cannot be dispensed with when it comes to humans.

In 2010, the focus has shifted from the cognitive and mental processes of information to the contextual structures of information actors. The year 2010, almost in the aftermath of the reflections held in Riga, Latvia (Hjørland, 2006a, 2006b), saw a rise in the attempts to repair the theoretical status of information science. The first comprehensive encyclopedia of information science was published (Bates and Maack, 2010). The encyclopedic attempt to map the field of information science was not as successful as hoped for this kind of work, with the contributions to and identity of information science being the least of the concerns and topics raised. The same year, the necessity of a theoretically grounded critique of information science was emphasized (Leckie and Buschman, 2010). Subsequently, the identity of information science and its contributions to its sister disciplines have waned, and efforts to redress the set-back have gained greater emergency. Robinson and Karamuftuoglu (2010) alarmingly remarked:

the identity and relevance of information science is increasingly being challenged by developments in such diverse disciplines as philosophy of information, computer science, informatics, artificial intelligence and cognitive science. It is our contention that information science is set apart from all of the aforementioned disciplines and others, and that, therefore, it is very much real [emphasis in original]. We may best understand information science as a field of study, with human recorded information as its concern. Its particular focus of interest is those aspects of information organization, and of human information-related behaviour. (see Conclusion section)

As seen in the reviewed articles, the coexistence of information science with cognate fields is proving to be detrimental to the identity of information science. Subsequent publications did not reverse this course of action (Buckland, 2012; Bullingham and Vosconcelos, 2013; Davis and Shaw, 2011; Fidel, 2012; Huang and Soergel, 2013; Ibekwe-SanJuan, 2012a; Savolainen, 2012a, 2012b, 2013; Spink and Heinström, 2011, 2012a, 2012b; Sugie, 2013; Wilson, J.M. and Wilson, L.M., 2013).

Beleaguered by loose attention to human context and the commodification of humans, the cognitive trend-inherited sense-making, information-seeking and user-centred views of humans have increased. As Cole (2013) wrote, 'information science in general and information behaviour research in particular has not had much effect on the computer science-dominated paradigm' (para 4). The end product of information science is not the production and consumption of information means and required behaviour, but the greater fulfilment of humans. One of the best ways of focusing on humans is to capture the structures of oppression and vulnerability (details below) seen in modern day societies to allow the fuller actualization of humans, especially of the most vulnerable individuals. Failure to research these forces will only make information science an inhuman science.

In 2014, the contributions of information science to human conditions are becoming more urgent than ever before. In his critique of the field's status, Hjørland (2014) asserted,

Scholarly and scientific concepts, including labels for disciplines should be theoretically motivated [emphasis in original]. They should not be motivated by "smart" attempts to attract students or funding agencies, reflect different organizational attachments, or just satisfy a wish to be the creator of something new, if it is not based on new theoretical points of view. Disciplines and their knowledge should be based on serious arguments. The extreme use of ambiguous terms causes confusion both inside the field and in relation to external partners, which is the opposite of what we as scholars are supposed to produce. (p. 223)

Information scientists cannot defend the most vulnerable human beings and their rights to fuller actualization without sustainably engaged theories, arguments and actions.


The method employed in this paper is one of content analysis. The paper uses 'content analysis as a systematic, rigorous approach to analyzing documents obtained or generated in the course of research' (White and Marsch, 2006, p. 22). Content analysis is a flexible method that makes inferences derived from texts and the context surrounding the usages of texts. Inferences are statements made on the patterns found. Content analysis uses themes, also called analytical constructs (White and Marsch, 2006, p. 27), to identify the patterns. As White and Marsch (2006) wrote, themes 'may be derived from (1) existing theories or practices; (2) the experience or knowledge of experts; and (3) previous research' (p. 27). For this paper, Sen's (1997a, 1997b, 1998, 1999, 2009, 2013) and Nussbaum's (2000, 2006a, 2006b) frameworks were used to identify the themes related to humans (details below). Real world experience was used to provide hands-on examples as our investigation of these topics progressed. Content analysis considers text or document as the basis of reflections. 'As the researcher reads through the data and scrutinizes them closely to identify concepts and patterns, some patterns and concepts may emerge that were not foreshadowed but that are, nevertheless, important aspects to consider' (White and Marsh, 2006, p. 34). Concepts and themes are an area derived from the researcher's inspiration, and enhanced with the emerging puzzles and questions.

Quantitative content analysis uses rigid coding with which to test the hypotheses proposed. The present paper is not one of quantitative research to test hypotheses, but one of qualitative research to trace the positions taken in relation to humans. For qualitative content analysis, rigid coding is not necessary since the researcher pinpoints key concepts, text sections, conflicting perspectives, linguistic usages, positional statements, etc. to unpack the patterns. One of the most common and productive forms of qualitative content analysis, often neglected, is with reviews of books or of other works. It is misleading, indeed inaccurate, to limit the review of a book to its title, blurb, abstract, chapter(s) or heading(s). In the same way, it is impractical to reduce the review of a hotel to its logo, poster(s) or sign(s). In either case, there is no such thing as a universal recipe or order of how to review, but a thorough review is needed to produce an informative account on the book and hotel. The goal is to delve into the full content of that which is being reviewed. A review is said to be thorough when it examines the key processes involved in the production of that which is being studied, from the first to the last step (e.g., from entry into the hotel to check-out time, or from the title of the paper to references). While qualitative content analysis has involved the full extent of articles and other items to unearth the underlying patterns, the paper used the concepts titles and abstracts (see Table 1) to best visualize the findings, with the idea that titles and abstracts be given greater attention since they are an important piece in presenting a research's contributions and findings.

Clarification about the selection of publication venues and articles reviewed in the present paper is helpful from the outset. More than 800 publications during a two-year period, 2011-2012, in the five most productive journals of information science were considered (see Table 1). The five journals have been targeted since they deal with the bodies of works known to be proper to the field of information science (Bates, 2010; Bates and Maack, 2010; Bawden and Robinson, 2012; Buckland, 2012; Furner, 2012; Hjørland, 2014; Saracevic, 1970, 2010a , 2010b). For example, Information Processing & Management was not included since it preoccupies itself with 'basic and applied research in information science, computer science, and cognitive science' (see Information Processing section, bullet No 1 on the Website linked above), and leaves aside the theoretical and methodological realm of information science needed to address human puzzles. Keywords related to human fulfilment (e.g., freedom, happiness, enjoyment, dignity, justice, etc.) were searched using Google Scholar to provide the background from which the analysis of the five information science journals was undertaken. Materials were scrutinized with an eye on the discussions, theories, methods, research questions, contributions and findings proposed (details below). Prior social science literature was used to inspire the analysis (see Sen, 1979, 1985, 1987, 1997a, 1997b, 1998, 1999, 2009, 2013 and Nussbaum, 2000, 2006a, 2006b).

Book reviews, brief communications and editorials describing the status of the literature were included in the analysis since they reflect our field's discussions and research avenues. Perhaps the biggest pitfalls for information science research occupied with humans are the phrases human computer interaction, computer human interaction and human-centred design. Although publications of these areas of research mention the term human and display a human-friendly attitude, they concern themselves with interface technicality and usability (see leading readings Nielsen, 1994, 2000; Shneiderman, 1990, 2002, 2009), and therefore were excluded from our analysis. Articles chosen for our analysis had to meet at least one of the following criteria: (1) stated position on human condition(s), (2) proposed contribution to human flourishing, (3) stated method to address human puzzle(s), or (4) stated contribution to the body of knowledge of information science and to that of the social or human sciences. As is clear from the findings, however, not one article met all four criteria, which does not reflect well on the field and its pioneers. Otlet (1895, 1914, 1934, 1935), for example, was a tenacious champion of human wellbeing. The criteria have been derived from the conceptual framework and related discussions (details below). So far discussions on humans have been limited to the traditional fields of the social or human sciences (e.g., sociology, philosophy, economics, etc.).

As can be anticipated, only an average of five to ten articles per journal (see Table 1) have engaged more or less with human wellbeing, bringing to light the dominant usability of systems and efficiency of information tasks needed for those systems. Furner (2012) noted, 'there remains almost unlimited scope for the development of a humanistically oriented information science' [emphasis added] (pp. xx-xxi, see also Spink and Heinström, 2012a, p. 3). It cannot be stressed enough that studies of information systems and resultant behaviour remain incomplete and in fact destructive and manipulative, without sustained inquiry into and engagement with humans and their lifeworlds. After the methodological clarification, we will look at the conceptual framework.

The conceptual framework espoused in this paper comes from Sen (Sen, 1987, 1997a, 1997b, 1998, 1999, 2009, 2013) and Nussbaum (2000, 2006a, 2006b). Sen and Nussbaum have supplied themes such as capabilities, vulnerabilities, oppressions, unfreedoms, functionings, etc., through which humans can best function as a human species. Sen (1999, pp. 38-40) distinguished five sets of freedoms with which humans can gain better lives: (1) political freedoms, (2) economic freedoms, (3) social opportunities (freedoms), (4) transparency guarantees (accountability to one another) and (5) protective security (freedom from misery or poverty). Coming from a feminist background, Nussbaum (2000, 2006a, 2006b) proposed a detailed list of capabilities, with an emphasis on the wellbeing of women. Ironically, information scientists, as shown by reviewed articles, understand gender, policy, poverty, and the like not as threats against and violations of human fulfilment, but as matters of information distribution (details below). It is like presenting oxygen simply as a reason for the inclusion of women in society, leaving aside its effects on the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of women. Nussbaum (2000) identified ten central capabilities: (1) life (longevity); (2) bodily health (adequate nutrition and adequate shelter); (3) bodily integrity (having one's bodily boundaries as sovereign, secure against assault); (4) senses, imagination, and thought; (5) emotions (the ability to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves); (6) practical reason (liberty of conscience); (7) affiliation (being able to live with others and having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation); (8) other species (being able to live with concern for animals, plants, and the world of nature); (9) play (being able to laugh and play, to enjoy recreational activities) and (10) control over one's environment (political participation and material rights such as land and property ownership) (pp. 78-80, see also Nussbaum, 2006b, pp. 76-78). The underlying idea is that of vulnerabilities, oppressions, or diminutions such that the worst-off individual can be allowed to be well-off. These themes have served as inspirational points from which collected articles have been scrutinized. The scrutiny of articles has allowed patterns to emerge (see Peacock, 2002, 2011, 2012, 2014). With its penchant toward reportage on information technologies and their dissemination, information science literature proves to be un-inspirational, dry and monotonous, lacking even in the reflections on maxims and proverbs of basic wisdom. None of the themes listed above preoccupy information scientists in the reviewed articles. Discussions on the range of capabilities (e.g., vulnerabilities, oppression, injustice, violence, etc.) help see the extent to which individuals are human when using information technologies.


From Table 1, the level of discussions and contributions devoted to humans is remarkably low: only 2.2% of the reviewed publications mention human in the title. 2.8% mentioned their contributions to humans neither in the title nor in the abstract whereas 0.4% made a contribution to discussions on humans. Buried in the slogans of user-centredness, publications disregard real world problems of humans (e.g., poverty, human rights violations, corruption, racism, civil war, democracy, economic crisis, immigration, violence, abuse, terrorism, etc.), assuming that with civilization these problems will disappear of themselves. Two major streams of trends emerge from the findings: trends related to human conditions on the one hand and trends concerning the conceptualizations of humans on the other.

Table 1: Human concept in major journals
JournalYear Articles or
'Human' or
in title
'Human' or
in abstract
Contribution to
discussion on
'human' or 'humanities'
Not in abstract
or title
1 Journal of the American Society of Information Science and Technology; 2 Library and Information Science Research; 3 Journal of Documentation; 4 Journal of Information Science; 5 Information Research

Human conditions

Some informative trends traverse the findings, of which three most recurrent concepts associated with human conditions are most indicative: (1) violence, (2) poverty and (3) everyday life. These concepts are an indication of how information researchers respond to real world problems. Let us begin with violence, one of the most leading themes of daily news and world affairs. Westbrook and Finn (2012) wrote,

Intimate partner violence is situated at a nexus of public concerns and personal crises. Community agencies, from criminal courts to shelters, establish their own priorities for and responses to this public concern. Individual survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) develop unique perspectives on their own crises. (p. 806)

However, no analysis of the societies and their members affected by this public concern is offered by the reviewed studies. Even worse, although authors are aware of 'the socio-economically vulnerable need' and the 'constellation of problems' (Westbrook and Finn, 2012, p. 821) related to this public and personal crisis of humans, they confine their research on violence to information seeking (see also Finn, Westbrook, Chen and Mensah, 2011).

One common thread through all of this work [done on intimate partner violence] is the lack of information expertise. The information expertise needed to enhance the utility of those resources is not only lacking, it is rarely recognized as missing. (Westbrook and Finn, 2012, p. 821)

Information expertise has come to serve as a wholesale flight from the absurd and unfair social realities with which humans are faced daily. It is important to investigate the lifeworlds of these victims and the forces beneath them -- within which information takes its roots -- and not just the information that these victims are using or sharing. Violence between partners is explained as a function of compelled nonuse of information (see Houston, 2009, 2011; Houston and Westbrook, 2013) or of information myths (see Westbrook, 2009). Another way information research can engage with violence is by looking at the structures of injustices and atrocities around the globe so that the vulnerable and the oppressed attain better lives. Perhaps the most troubling note here is the fact that studies done on violence did not cite any major work on violence (e.g., Aristotle, 1950; Hobbes, 1642/1983, 1651/1994; Machiavelli, 1513/1985; Storr, 1970). Connections with prior works are key to productive discussion and research.

After violence, the second concept related to human conditions is poverty. Information science studies prefer the theme of information poverty or information inequality to that of real poverty or real inequality. A variant theme employed by authors along the same lines is homelessness (Jaeger et al., 2012; MacDonald, Bath and Booth, 2011; Mervyn and Allen, 2012; Park, 2012; Sabelli, 2012; Sin, 2011; Shilton, 2012; Yu, 2011). Here again, homelessness is only approached as a lack of information and not a lack of or violation against human actualization to be looked at in the broader societal scheme (details below). In essence, authors acknowledge the link between information poverty and economic poverty in society, but they remain hesitant and limit their views to information quantity. As Mervyn and Allen (2012) explained, 'information poverty may have connotations with economic poverty, but it is also deeply enshrined within the fabric of socially structured norms, beliefs, and behaviors' (p. 1126, see also Sin, 2011, p. 52). Rejecting the link between information poverty and economic poverty, Chatman (1996), the founder of information poverty theory, insisted, 'over the course of my inquiries, however, I discovered that this linkage [information poverty and economic poverty] is not necessarily true' (p. 194). This view presents information poverty as a deficiency of needed information. MacDonald, Bath and Booth (2011) elaborated,

Information poverty and information overload appear at opposite ends of an information quantity continuum with too little information, or else ignorance about information, at one end and too much information or anxiety about too much information at the other. These phenomena are generally considered separately in the literature. (p. 244)

The statement implies a narrow and disengaged understanding of poverty and its consequences. A pertinent, and yet revealing, expression of information poverty used in literature is that of 'fastidious withdrawal of information' (Chatman, 1999, p. 207). In the same vein, as noted earlier, homelessness is apprehended as an information deficiency phenomenon. Mervyn and Allen (2012) went on, saying, 'homelessness and information poverty... this topic remains, however, an issue of particular relevance for public policy, particularly as it relates to the implementation of technology to resolve the informational issues that socially excluded groups face' (p. 1126). Information has come to serve as a shade put on poverty and its destructive forces. As Yu (2011) clarified, 'LIS is a discipline with the responsibility to ensure maximum discoverability and accessibility of information for individuals. As such, it sees information inequality as problematic for some members of society in terms of both information discoverability and accessibility' (p. 673). The misleading concept here is information access, which, in and of itself, does not warrant people's wellbeing. The best example is with banks, stores, supermalls, hotels, airports, ports, universities, hospitals, etc., to which people have access, but people do not have the means nor the capabilities to buy or afford what they need for their lives. Authors should investigate the forces of poverty in the wider society to ensure the wellbeing of all individuals exposed to information instead of fetishizing information access and information inequity. Meanwhile, 'poverty persists around the world and is exacerbated by growing inequality especially within countries' (Jarrett, 2013, p. 3). To make matters even worse, as Bullock (2013) wrote, 'in the United States and around the world women bear much of the brunt of poverty. Seventy percent of the world's poor are women' (p. 1). The remark reverberates prior calls to address poverty. Fidel (2012) warned, 'we [information scientists] cannot significantly improve human lives without changing the material conditions and the economic system that shape them ' (p. xi). In whatever way we improve information technologies, we cannot stand idle before society and its injustices and myriad victims.

Another alarming find is that none of the studies done on inequity, poverty, or homelessness cited influential authors or sources known for works on poverty, such as Marx (1867/1977), Sen (1999, 2009), Yunus (2007), 2013), The Millennium Development Goals (2000), etc. We cannot help humans by remaining insensitive to their struggles for survival. It does not mean that information access or equity is not important, but that it does not supplant a sustained study of human conditions. It is also puzzling that authors do not engage with the ways in which the information age, despite its claims of universal access, is fueling poverty by widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. After the explosive uptake of electronic journals in the 1990s,

many scholars suspected that the cost of publishing electronic journals would be substantially lower than the cost associated with publishing paper journals. Further, some argued that electronic publishing would enable non-profit organizations, such as universities, to assume the responsibilities of publishing a substantial fraction of the corpus of the scholarly journals at a lower cost than "for profit" (trade) publishers. (Kling and Callahan, 2003, p. 127)

But, in the 2000s and onward, the cost of electronic journals proved to be higher than promised and few universities ventured to produce or sponsor their own electronic journals. Electricity, Internet service and servers' maintenance are getting ever more expensive as years go by, not to mention special software such as Dreamweaver, Photoshop, NVivo, Norton, EndNote and Atlas.

The third and last concept with which the reviewed articles are closest to reflections on human conditions is everyday life. Just like other concepts, everyday life has been used by information science literature not so much about human conditions as it has been about information seeking. This paper advocates for 'an emphasis on the value of the everyday [emphasis added] as a source of agency and empowerment' (Giroux, 1993, p. 464) of humans, not as a lab of experiment for information uses. Everyday life is the privileged milieu of human flourishing. Even more paradoxical, everyday life tends to be mentioned only cursorily (see Ooi and Liew, 2011; Vasalou et al., 2011; Williamson, Qayyum, Hider and Liu, 2012). Other human-related topics such as privacy, social capital, literacy, policy, information sharing, information need, etc. (Chu, Tse and Chow, 2011; Cole, 2011; Cox, 2012; Johnson, 2012; Julien, Pecoskie and Reed, 2011; Kim, 2012; Lin and Chen, 2012; Ma, Jiang, Fu and Zhao, 2012; Pilerot, 2012; Pilerot and Limberg, 2011) betoken the same patterns of information quantity (not the quality of human life), the scope of which is bound to requisite information tasks, and is disconnected from the discussions regarding humans and their conditions. In describing the position ascribed to the concept information need, for example, Cole (2011) confirmed the findings of the present research, saying,

Information need is one of the most essential concepts in information science, but it is a misunderstood concept, frequently being interpreted to mean either: 1. Empirical studies of a user group's frequency of use, preference for or satisfaction with "channels". 2. A user's command input to an information system to start it or make it work. (p. 1216)

The view outlined in this statement epitomises the position propagated by information science literature concerning humans and their lifeworlds, which has come to mean the command of and satisfaction with a system or task. Cole's (2011) recent, yet little known, recommendation that there be 'a holistic approach to information need which defines the need for information as fundamental to the human condition' (p. 1217) has the potential to redirect authors' attention toward human conditions. Still, information need or cognitive paradigm remains the canon of research in information science, requiring authors to espouse an information-limited view of humans.

By and large, everyday life (Williamson, Qayyum, Hider and Liu, 2012) is taken to mean a series of information tasks observed when a person routinely uses an information system. In other words, authors view everyday life as an aggregate of tasks, forgetting the features that set human life apart. A direct consequence of this behaviourist and mechanistic conception of humans is the belief that the wellbeing of humans consists in the (best) use of information. Since Bacon (1597/1859, 1620/1889) showed information to be power, information systems have been presented to be more powerful than humans. Consequently, human freedom is losing its power. Authors tend to imply that information systems are mandatory for all humans, regardless of their freedoms. In the name of information age, a society of absolute and unquestionable consumerism of information technologies is being imposed. The only lifestyle that humans are forced into is that of information system users, with no other option on the table. Also what is or is not human regarding the concepts used about humans (e.g., life, privacy, seeking, etc.) is not discussed. More precisely, the quality of life seen in the information age raises several questions. To illustrate, a number of items -- readily taken for granted -- threaten the quality of human life, such as dependency on and addiction to electronic devices, environmental impact of worn-out batteries and electronic products, 24/7 energy emission of website servers, jumble of passwords and user names, and overuse of magnetic fields in human ecosystem (e.g., garage openers, work badges, check points, hotel or building keys, remote controls, etc.). In all these instances affecting human life one way or another, humans are not consulted nor given alternate options. It is unfair to view humans as mere performers of (information) tasks. 'The information age has been producing more efficient clickers in place of freer individuals' (Cibangu, 2013b, Operationalism section, para 9). The history of the social sciences graces us with excellent reflections on human life, with a view to keep humans free from social and technological enslavement. The goal is to examine the ways in which humans can enjoy fuller life, greater freedom and better conditions. Failure to carry further research about humans will only reduce humans to a life possessed by technology and its systems.

Conceptualisations of humans

From Table 2 (see below), five themes can be gleaned from the bulk of reviewed literature. The themes reflect the many moves under the banner of which humans have been given some attention in information science literature over the period surveyed and the journals reviewed. The sixth and last theme is a proposed corrective to existing information research (for underlying philosophies see Bates, 1999, 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Budd, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012; Cibangu, 2010, Cibangu, 2013a; Hjørland, 1996, 1998a, 1998b, 2000a, 2000b, 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2004a, 2004b, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c, 2005d, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b, 2014; Williamson, 2007a, 2007b). In a nutshell, humans are conceived of as conquerors and seekers of systems or of certain forms of information phenomena.

Theme I: Humans conceived of as systems-men or machine-men. The goal here is to conform humans to machines since machines replicate and extend the laws of nature. Inspired by Shannon's (1948) information theory, which seeks to optimize channels for a smoother information transmission, this view defines humans as a function of systems (see also Haigh, 2001, 2011, 2013; Geoghegan, 2008). The advantage of this view lies in its focus on the optimization of systems whereas the major disadvantage is its tendency to neglect human agency. While the systems-men view has been revamped to incorporate human behaviour and tasks (Lumsden, Hall and Cruickshank, 2011; Naderi and Rumpler, 2010; Sun, 2012; Sun, Kantor and Morse, 2011; Williams, 2011; Wilson, 2010; Yuan and Belkin, 2010a, , 2010b), its primary focus revolves around systems and their functionality. The basic idea is, the better information machines function, the better humans live. In recent years, the systems view has received various appellations, such as Web design, search engine, database, software, software packages, cloud, cookies, malware, etc. The idea behind this view is to produce the best systems for human beings. As Yuan and Belking (2010a) stated, 'results of the experiment demonstrated a substantial and significant advantage to the integrated system' (p. 2003). One of the most shared ideas in this view is to have an integrated system, one that addresses both the systems and the user dimensions.

Theme II: Humans conceived of as conquerors of learning skills and/or tasks. This view came as a response to the systems-men trend to give weight to human agency for better information practices and usages (Sairanen and Savolainen, 2010; Savolainen, 2011a, 2011b, 2012a, 2012b, 2013; Timmers and Glas, 2010). The idea is to allow humans to gain as many learning skills and tasks as possible. The focus is placed on human skills and tasks to ensure a self-sustaining usage of new (information) technologies (see reviews of Jansen and Rieh, 2010; Julien, Pecoskie and Reed, 2011; Lloyd, 2010a, 2012; Wu et al., 2012). This view has taken different names from different areas across information science, such as information literacy, information retrieval, information seeking, user studies, user-centred design, user-friendly devices, customized applications, etc. For this view, the better information skills and tasks are performed, the better humans live. The focus is on tasks, skills, usability or interactivity. In user studies, this view has been criticized for its tendency toward consumerism. One of the starkest indications of the consumerist view of humans can be found in the outcomes of the study undertaken by Wu et al. (2012) on iSchools' research covering five years (2005-2010). Although Wu et al. (2012) mentioned the concept people in the famous trilogy of technology, information and people - a trilogy with which the insistence on systems has been refuted in information science -- they persistently replaced it with the word user. In this respect, defining our profession of information scientists, Wu et al. (2012) emphasized, 'although the challenges and opportunities facing each iSchool will be increasingly diverse and different, the relationships between information, technology and the user will always be the foundation [emphasis added] in our profession' (p. 34, see also p. 32). Needless to say that Wu et al. (2012) did not cite the seminal remarks of Day (2011) or, at least, of Frohmann (1992a) about the concept user. Interestingly enough, Wu et al. (2012) characterized the work of information scientists as follows: 'iSchools are information schools and they study the development and usage of technology to manipulate information [emphasis added]' (p. 33). The manipulation, not even creation (see Cole, 2011), of information and its technology is said to stand at the heart of information science. Unequivocally, this definition - reflective of iSchools around the world (and of the reviewed articles) -- does not lend itself to the fuller flourishing that humans must enjoy in interacting with reality, including information technologies.

Theme III: Humans conceived of as conquerors of social landscapes and/or social media. This view emerged out of the cognitive viewpoint, which was found to be individualistic. Hjørland (2012) wrote, 'I have argued that LIS should be based on a social, epistemological approach rather than on an individual, cognitive view [emphasis added]' (p. 258, see also Hjørland, 2010, p. 223 or Hjørland, 2014, p. 229). To be precise, Hjørland (2010, 2012) presented his social paradigm of information as one that consists of research communities. The social contours of information and its study can be viewed from various fronts. To a great extent, attention has been given to the social aspect of information usages to capture the landscape or context (real or virtual) in which information technologies and related phenomena are rooted. For example, Lloyd (2012) defined information literacy as follows: 'from a socio-cultural perspective, information literacy is not viewed as the property of individuals, but as the property of the social site' (p. 775, see also Lloyd, 2010b, p. 245, Lloyd et al., 2013, p. 123). The goal is to conquer as many social spaces as needed since information is found to be socially contextualized. This means that the better the settings of information are considered, the better humans live. In this respect, social media or social networks embody the collaborative milieus in which information agents achieve greater interactions or extensions across spaces and times (Alguliev, Aliguliyev and Ganjaliyev, 2011; Burford, 2012; Naaman, Becker and Gravano, 2011; Read et al., 2012; Thelwall, Buckley and Paltoglou, 2011; Wilkinson and Thelwall, 2012). Information landscapes have engaged a wide array of social groups and settings in hopes that humans keep pace with the ubiquity of information phenomena and accompanying technologies.

Theme IV: Humans conceived of as conquerors of meaning and/or experience. The goal here is to seek the meaning of the information that is being used and/or the experience encountered (Al-Maskari and Sanderson, 2010; Pilerot, 2012; Pilerot and Limberg, 2011). More pertinently, Saracevic (2012) provided one of the best descriptions of this view, saying, 'every field has some central idea or ideas. Retrieval of relevant information [emphasis in original] and not just any kind of information (and there are many) is a central idea of information science' (p. 49). Meaning or relevance constitutes the corner stone around which information science authors understand the role of humans with regard to information processes and experience(s). This view is arguably represented under the umbrella term cognitive paradigm. The basic idea is, the better the meanings and experiences derived from information are, the better humans live. A recent variant of this view can be found in the idea of information experience (see Bruce et al., 2014a, 2014b; Hughes, 2014; Lloyd, 2014). The cognitive paradigm, variedly called cognitive viewpoint, is a line of work that, despite various revisions and corrections in the intervening years to incorporate emotional states, cultural and social contexts, and subjective processes of knowledge, has kept a brain-centric perspective as its leading focus of information research (see Bawden and Robinson, 2012, p. 45; Borlund, 2010, pp. 30-31; Budd, 2011, p. 367). Critical assessment is needed to be aware of the ramifications involved in the chosen version of the cognitive paradigm

Theme V: Humans as able to be self-critical. The goal here is to criticize the works at hand. Criticism comes from the researcher or from people themselves. Advocates of this view include Day (2011) and Cole (2011). The idea of humans as being able to be self-critical can be traced back to Frohmann (1992a) with his objection against the commodification of humans encountered in the system-driven move and its allies. Day (2011) debunked the idea of users applied to humans, arguing that the lives and contexts of humans cannot be restricted to a concept. Equally, Cole (2011) took issue with the tendency to reduce humans to the functionality of systems and its command. It is hoped that the work of Day (2011) and of Cole (2011) will be followed through in areas of information science literature. Day's (2011) and Cole's (2011) critical reviews further confirm this paper's recommendation that articles published in information science build on the bodies of discussions relevant to information science. A case worth mentioning here is the research that Julien, Pecoskie and Reed (2011) conducted on the trends seen in information behaviour work from 1999 to 2008. While the authors of the research did a nice job by looking at the trends that seep through information behaviour literature, of which theoretical issues and theoretical frameworks are one of the topics addressed, they made no mention of prior discussions done on theoretical frameworks in information science (e.g., Bates, 1999, 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Budd, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012; Hjørland, 1996, 1998a, 1998b, 2000a, 2000b, 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2004a, 2004b, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c, 2005d, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b, 2014; Williamson, 2007a, 2007b). Theoretical frameworks influence the ways in which researchers view and debate humans. For example, as noted earlier, positivists tend to insist on systems and their standards made available to humans whereas interpretivists privilege the experiences, contexts and meanings that information usages are surrounded with. The idea of humans as able to be self-critical is that the more critical information researchers are of the knowledge bases employed and of the commodification of people, the better is the research on humans.

Theme VI: Humans as fulfilled and fulfillers. The sixth theme is a proposal of this paper to take on the move launched by critical humanists, which goes deep to challenge the prevailing commodification of humans. The paper suggests that humans be seen as fulfillers of themselves and of others. The idea is not to conquer something exterior or interior to the subject, but to become fully human or achieve fuller actualization. In other words, more fulfilling information systems are likely to result in better societies.

Table 2: Conceptualizations of humans
Themes Conceptualisations of humansUnderlying philosophy
I Humans as systems-men
the better information machines function, the better humans live
IIHumans as conquerors of learning skills and/or tasks
the better information skills/tasks are performed, the better humans live
III Humans as conquerors of social spaces or social media
the better the settings of information are considered, the better humans live
IV Humans as conquerors of meaning and/or experience
the better the meanings or experiences derived from and ascribed to information are, the better humans live
V Humans as able to be self-critical
the more critical information researchers are of the knowledge bases employed and of the commodification of people, the better is the research for humans
Critical theory and/or interpretivism
VI Humans as fulfilled and fulfillers
the more fulfilling are information usages, spaces and systems, the better are humans
Critical theory and/or interpretivism


In sum, the findings that characterize information science literature with regard to humans can be described at seven levels: (1) endemic indifference to human rights or dignity (see discussion above), (2) inability to engage with the central concepts of the study, (3) inability to involve thinkers relevant to the central concepts of the study, (4) inattention to the wellbeing of and impact on humans, (5) lack of connection with and contribution to information science as a whole, to sub-fields of information science, and to the larger body of knowledge in the social or human sciences, (6) deficient toolkit or formation in theorists and theories related to humans and (7) misleading use of abstract and title. The title should announce the work on humans, or at best, the abstract should indicate a work's contributions to human discussions within information science in particular and the social or human sciences in general.

The reviewed articles have brought Saracevic's (1970) remarks into greater focus:

in the past, my education and research efforts have been hampered by the lack of an overall structure (i.e., an order of parts) of the field of information science, in terms of which some generalizations and relations may be expressed. (p. xiv)

Prior observations made in critical reviews of information science (e.g., Bates, 1999, 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Budd, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012; Day, 2010, 2011; Frohmann, 1992a ; Hjørland, 1998a, 2000b, 2002a, 2005c, 2006a; Jansen and Rief, 2010; Julien, Pecoskie and Reed, 2011; Leckie and Buschman, 2010; Lloyd, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c; Talja and Lloyd, 2010; Williamson, 2007a, 2007b) were largely ignored and research remained disparate. Attention to and repair of observed gaps have the potential to knit together the bodies of information science. Authors did not engage methodological discussions and the analysis of the field's foundations and concepts. For example, Järvelin and Vakkari (1992), among others, remarked, 'the methodology of research in the field and the analysis of LIS [concepts and foundations] have received little attention and their shares [contributions] have dropped dramatically' (p. 120; see also Fidel, 1993, p. 238). The history of the social sciences swarms with theories and theorists regarding humans. In 2011, the lack of dialogue was noted, 'one of the identified challenges of information behaviour research is the wide flora of various theories and models, and the lack of integration and dialogue among these [theories]' (Spink and Heinström, 2011, p. 8). In 2012, the lack of theoretical dialogue and coherence took on unabated and epidemic proportions in the field (see Buckland, 2012, p. 1; Fidel, 2012, p. 142). Another example worth recalling, recent publications in the sub-field of information organization display no connection(s) with the wider field of information science, much less sub-areas of information science and discussions on humans (Choi, 2013; Park & Howarth, 2013; Yang & Lee, 2013). Without engaged and concerted discussions about humans, our work becomes inhuman.

Overwhelmed with applied studies, the field of information science does not have a venue that reviews its works, nor its own manuals of methodology around which authors can rally and discuss. To best undertake its core mission of human research, our field must produce its own humanities-honed thinkers. As Hjørland (1996) put it glaringly, 'what is needed in all kinds of research, including research in [our own] information science and information work, is a broader problem perception, a more generalized perspective that explores problems from a deeper acquaintance with scientific and philosophical theories' (p. 52). Roughly two decades later, Hjørland (2014) made the same remark,

The development of LIS into a well integrated scholarly field depends on a sufficient number of engaged people willing to do the job at a truly scholarly level. It is important not to believe that somebody else will do that for you [emphasis added]. (p. 208, see also Hjørland's clearer observation on the increasingly disconnected status of the information field, p. 230; Ibekwe-SanJuan, 2012b, p. 1693)

With sketchy views on and investigations of humans, we cannot help policy makers and our readers. References of the reviewed papers denote a lack of formation in or exposure to theories and theorists.


Materials were limited to a 2-year period, 2011-2012 and to five major journals of information science. Also by advocating for cross-area concepts and discussions, the analysis downplayed the particularities proper to areas of information science. For example, what is discussed in information organization is not the same as what is discussed in human computer interaction. Another weakness of the study is the focus on the comparison of information science with other disciplines born practically simultaneously with information science such as communication studies and computer science. The historical developments of these disciplines differ vastly from those of information science. Despite these limitations, however, it is believed that the paper starts a needed discussion, and lays bare the patterns of the ills that plague our field.


As apparent from the reviewed articles, information science is called to engage the totality of human conditions looming behind information systems to produce contributive research about our humanly unfair and unsafe world. No science can dispense with human conditions. The shift from the systems and mental processes to the context of information is not enough. Our field's failure to harness the discussions and theories about humans will only make our world a better place for information systems, but not for humans. To this end, the study reported here made a first step toward linking current humanist-leaning information science research to the humanist agenda advocated in this article, by labeling the current humanist research themes (see Table 2) in the information science literature. It is hoped that by labeling what has been information science practice regarding humanistic themes, this paper can make a small contribution to setting out a new direction for humanist information science research.

This paper does not aim to provide a comprehensive list of human characteristics, nor settle discussions, but to advocate for critical and contributive research about humans in information science. Repeated calls to engage the human line of work have been bypassed for a long time, and recent publications do not show a sign of heeding. Information science as a human science is a science that tracks down the (information) structures of oppressions and vulnerabilities to allow the most vulnerable person in our midst to achieve fuller actualization. Information science as a human science is a science that achieves the fuller actualization of the most vulnerable individuals.


A huge thank you ought to be extended to three anonymous reviewers for the invaluable comments made on the drafts of my paper. Extremely helpful were the suggestions received from editor Charles B. Cole. I am also grateful that the paper benefited from the changes proposed by Information Research copyeditor, Nate Evuarherhe.

About the author

Sylvain K. Cibangu is a PhD candidate in information science, Centre for Information Management of the School of Business and Economics at Loughborough University, UK. His research interests primarily include research methods, qualitative research, quantitative research, race and diversity, information and communication technologies, and foundations of information science. His doctoral work is concerned with mobile phones and socio-economic development in Africa. He can be reached at fscib@uw.edu or S.Cibangu@lboro.ac.uk

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How to cite this paper

Cibangu, K.S. (2015). A new direction in information science research: making information science a human science. Information Research, 20(3), paper 686. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/20-3/paper586.html (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6bISkg5hD)

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