The use of theory in information science research

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  • The Use of Theory in Information Science Research

    Karen E. PettigrewAssistant Professor, The Information School, University of Washington, Box 352930, Seattle, WA, 98195-3152.E-mail:

    Lynne (E.F.) McKechnieAssistant Professor, Faculty of Information & Media Studies, The University of Western Ontario, MiddlesexCollege, London, Ontario, N6A 5B7 Canada. E-mail:

    We report on our findings regarding authors use oftheory in 1,160 articles that appeared in six informationscience (IS) journals from 19931998. Our findings indi-cate that theory was discussed in 34.1% of the articles(0.93 theory incidents per article; 2.73 incidents per ar-ticle when considering only those articles employingtheory). The majority of these theories were from thesocial sciences (45.4%), followed by IS (29.9%), the sci-ences (19.3%), and humanities (5.4%). New IS theorieswere proposed by 71 authors. When compared with pre-vious studies, our results suggest an increase in the useof theory within IS. However, clear discrepancies wereevident in terms of how researchers working in differentsubfields define theory. Results from citation analysisindicate that IS theory is not heavily cited outside thefield, except by IS authors publishing in other literatures.Suggestions for further research are discussed.


    Having a theory is today the mark of research seriousnessand respectability. Theory is, of course, convenient, andhelps to organize and communicate unwieldy data and sim-plify the terrible complexities of the social world, mattersthat may well be more important to the field than whether ornot a given theory is true of false. (Van Maanen, 1998,p. xxix).

    It is a well-known fact that IS lacks good theories.(Hjrland, 1998, p. 607)

    [Theories] may be expressed or represented in writtenand graphical form. They may well inspire and guide prac-tical achievements of a concrete form. Yet a theory remainsa mental construct. A good theory is one that matcheswell our perception of whatever the theory is about. Thecloser the match, the better the theory is. (Buckland, 1991,p. 19)

    Working with conceptual frameworks and empirical re-search has never been easy. (Chatman, 1996, p. 205)

    According to the philosophy of science, the use of theoryby scholars in their research is a hallmark of their disci-plines academic maturity (cf. Brookes, 1980; Hauser,1988). Moreover, disciplines require theories that originatefrom within to attain recognition as an independent field ofscientific inquiry. In other words, if fields such as informa-tion science (IS) are to delineate their disciplinary bound-aries and build a central body of knowledge, then theyrequire their own theoretical bases for framing researchproblems, building arguments, and interpreting empiricalresults. Even advocates of the opposing philosophy ofknowledge view such as Wersig (1993), who argue thatinformation science is a prototypical postmodern sciencethat seeks to develop strategies for solving or dealing withproblems that have been caused by classical sciences andtechnologies (as opposed to searching for complete under-standing of how the world works), agree that a unifiedbuilding of interconceptual underpinnings or a conceptualnavigation system is, nonetheless, necessary for the fieldof IS.

    But what is theory? Some basic definitions include: aset of explanatory concepts (Silverman, 1993, p. 1), astatement or group of statements about how some part of theworld worksfrequently explaining relations among phe-nomena (Vogt, 1993, p. 232), an internally connected andlogically consistent proposition about relationships amongphenomena (Odi, 1982, p. 313), a systematic explanationfor the observed facts and laws that relate to a particularaspect of life (Babbie, 1992, p. 55), a unified, systematicexplanation of a diverse range of social phenomena(Schwandt, 1997, p. 154), and generalizations which seekto explain relationships among phenomena (Grover & Gla-zier, 1986, p. 228). The Oxford English Dictionary definestheory as a supposition or system of ideas explainingsomething, especially one based on general principles inde-pendent of the facts, phenomena, etc., to be explained (e.g.,atomic theory, theory of gravitation, evolution); . . . exposi- 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. c


  • tion of the principles of a science, etc., (the theory ofmusic); (Math.) collection of propositions to illustrate prin-ciples of a subject (probability theory, theory of equations)(Sykes, 1982, p. 1109). In their 1985 ARIST chapter Prin-ciples and Theories in Information Science, Boyce andKraft defined principle as a single fundamental law,generally an empirically regularity based on continued ob-servation such that a theory incorporat[s] a body ofsuch principles and suggests new principles that can betested as hypotheses, both to increase knowledge and toinvalidate or to strengthen the theory itself (Boyce & Kraft,1985, p. 154). More recently, Buckland (1991, p. 18) de-fined theory in the broad sense of a description or expla-nation of the nature of things, not in the more restrictedsense, used in some sciences, of denoting fundamental lawsformally stated and falsifiable. According to Hjrland(1998, p. 607), IS theory as a theoretical explanation ofinformation systems efficiency, of user behavior, of thefunction of different search agents such as descriptors, titles,and so on. Regarding models in information behaviorresearch, Wilson (1999, p. 250) said a model may bedescribed as a framework for thinking about a problem andmay evolve into a statement of the relationship amongtheoretical propositions.

    The need for greater use of theory as a conceptual basisin IS research has been repeatedly voiced in the literaturewith respect to the discipline as a whole (e.g., Boyce &Kraft, 1985; Feehan, Gragg, Havener, & Kester, 1987;Grover & Glazier, 1986; Hjrland, 1998; Templeton, 1994)and its subfields such as information retrieval (e.g., Spink,1997), humancomputer interaction (e.g., Shackel, 1997),and information behavior (e.g., Vakkari, 1997; Zweizig &Dervin, 1977). But despite the many recent bibliometricstudies and content analyses that have been conducted onthe IS literature in terms of faculty productivity and citationand acknowledgment patterns (e.g., Atkins, 1988; Cronin &Overfelt, 1994; Davis & Cronin, 1993; Garland, 1990,1991; Harter & Hooten, 1990; Harter, Nisonger, & Weng,1993; Hayes, 1983; Kim, 1992; Kumpulainen, 1991; Mu-larski, 1991; Persson, 1994; Pettigrew & Nicholls, 1994;Varlejs & Dalrymple, 1986; White & McCain, 1998), fewresearchers have focused specifically on the role of theory inIS research, i.e., the importation, growth, and use of theorywithin the field. Instead, the prevalence of theory has beencontained to a singular facet and not explored in depth. Intheir multivariable content analyses, researchers havetended to code articles simply according to whether or not aconceptual framework was employed with little attention towhich theories from which fields were cited or how theywere used therein.

    The results from content analyses that were conductedperiodically on the journal literature since 1950, however,overwhelming suggest that the vast majority of IS researchis atheoretical. Peritz (1980, p. 252), for example, reportedthat through the years 1950 to 1975 only 14% of the articlessampled were theoretical in the analytical sense of employ-ing a mathematical, linguistic, logical, or other philosoph-

    ical methodology. She accredited the sudden increase intheoretical papers published between 1965 and 1975 to theintroduction of mathematical modelling, systems analysis,and linguistic analysis into the research literature (p. 257).Nour (1985) replicated Peritzs study with the 1980 journalliterature, and reported that while 21.2% of articles usedtheory in an analytical sense, less than 3% of the articleswere about information science theory. In their investiga-tion of the 1984 journal literature, Feehan, Gregg, Havened,and Keister (1987) reported that only 13% of the 123research articles sampled from 91 IS journals either dis-cussed/applied theory in the study design or attempted toformulate theories or principles which can provide a theo-retical basis for IS. Although Feehan et al. coded thesetheories in terms of six IS categories (e.g., general, com-munication theory, information retrieval) and included theuse of theory from other disciplines, they did not report thefinal breakdowns.

    With respect to the 1985 literature, Jarvelin and Vakkari(1990) found that theory was used in only 10% of the 449empirical studies that they examined from 37 core journals.While these explanatory investigations were most fre-quently used in research on information seeking, profes-sions, and scientific communication, Jarvelin and Vakkariconcluded that there is little attempt in IS to discover theregularities prevailing in the research area [and that] thisdeficiency makes the formulation of theories more difficult(p. 409). They further remarked:

    LIS theories, as we know, are usually vague and conceptu-ally unclear, and basic concepts have not been defined (cf.Poole, 1985; Schrader, 1986). Therefore the scarcity ofconceptual analysis must be regarded as a grave deficiency.Although empirical studies and articles containing verbalargumentation and critique may contain conceptual analy-sis, they do not make up for the lack of more generalanalysis on basic concepts of the field. Conceptual analysis,too, should be more frequent, in order to clarify the unhoedrows in concepts in LIS (p. 415).

    They pointed to the library and information servicesparadigm that they believe underlies most IS research (atleast in 1985) as the reason for the lack of theory employedtherein. According to Jarvelin and Vakkari, this paradigmtypically has made little use of such traditional scientificapproaches as foundations and conceptual analysis, or ofscientific explanation and theory formulation. This may bedue to the fact that the discipline was born out professionalpractice and is therefore intimately connected with its prob-lems (p. 415).

    More recently, Julien (1996) focused on the informationneeds and uses literature published from 19901994. Shereported an increase in theory use in that 28% of the 165articles sampled were theoretically grounded, meaning theywere based on a coherent and explicit framework of as-sumptions, definitions, and propositions that, taken together,have some explanatory power (p. 56). However, in a re-


  • lated study, Julien and Duggan (2000) reported that only18.3% of the 300 research studies sampled from 19841989and 19951994 were theoretically based and thus, theirgreat concern that such a small proportion of literature isbased on theory. But their results do suggest that theory usemay be increasing, given Jarvlein and Vakkaris (1993)finding that only 6 to 8% of research articles on informa-tion-seeking sampled for the years 1965, 1975, and 1985employed a theoretical framework. Julien (1996) also re-ported a significant relationship between author type andtheoretical grounding where researchers were more likelyto theoretically ground their publications, whether thesewere research studies or not, than practitioners, and alsobetween journal type and theoretical grounding of the liter-ature where scholarly journals were more likely to publishtheoretical articles than professional journals (p. 59). Shereported no significant relationship between author type andwhether articles were typified as research in nature.

    In short, while content analysts agree that the use oftheory in IS research is consistently low (anywhere between10 to 21% with a slight increase in studies that focus oninformation behavior) and members of the IS community ingeneral recognize a needalbeit from different perspec-tivesfor increased use of theory in our work, little isknown about the current use and uses of theory in ISresearch. Although researchers have responded to the inher-ent issues surrounding theory in IS research in differentways [Pettigrew (1997), Vakkari (1998), and Vakkari &Kuokkanen (1997), e.g., advocated the use of structuralisttools from sociology for measuring theoretical growth andactivity and for adapting theories from other disciplines inIS research, while Grover and Glazier (1986) proposed amodel for theory building in IS, and various others, mostnotably Frohmann (1992), Hjland and Albrechtsen (1995),and Schrader (1984, 1986), have debated the implications ofdifferent conceptualizations of the intellectual domain ofinformation science], basic work is required on the role oftheory in IS research and on how it is specifically beingused.

    Current Study

    As a response to past criticism of the nonscientific natureof IS research, one may hypothesize that greater emphasis isbeing placed on conducting basic research that reflects thestructure of a mature academic discipline with its owntheoretical underpinnings. Thus, one may further hypothe-size that theories are being born in IS and that a central coreof knowledge, unique to the discipline, is taking shape. Butwhat are these theories? Where did they come from? Howare they being used in current research? And, given thediverse topical interests of researchers in IS, do the answersto these questions vary? The purpose of our study was toaddress these questions by analyzing how IS authors usetheory in their published work, and by examining how theseIS theories are used outside the field.


    In the current study, these questions were investigated byconducting a content analysis of 1,160 articles that appearedfrom 1993 to 1998 in six journals:

    (1) Information Processing and Management (IP&M; sixissues per year)

    (2) Journal of the American Society for Information Sci-ence (JASIS; 10 issues per year for 19931995; 12issues per year for 1996 and 1997; 14 issues for 1998)

    (3) Journal of Documentation (JDOC; quarterly)(4) Journal of Education for Library and Information Sci-

    ence Education (JELIS; quarterly)(5) Library and Information Science Research (LISR; quar-

    terly)(6) Library Quarterly (LQ; quarterly)

    These journals were chosen because they contain peer-reviewed articles that cover most areas of research interestwithin IS, namely: indexing, information retrieval, humancomputer interaction, bibliometrics, information behavior,information policy, history, library services, management,and education. All articles, except for book reviews andnews items such as conference reports, were coded for theauthors use of theory.

    Each article was initially coded in terms of the primaryauthors affiliation (as listed in the article, i.e., privatesector, government, academic department), broad subjectmatter, and type of article, while the theories cited thereinwere coded in terms of whether they originated from IS, thescie...


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