Whither Information Science? Fireside Chat with Nick Belkin, A Pioneer of the Cognitive Paradigm

Whither Information Science? Fireside Chat with Nick Belkin, A Pioneer of the Cognitive Paradigm

Shalini Urs

In the current season of the movie “Oppenheimer,” it’s intriguing to contemplate how the destinies of individuals and disciplines can become intricately intertwined, whether due to providence or other factors. This phenomenon holds particularly true in the context of an ever-evolving field like information science. The beauty and complexity of a science centered on information lie in its perpetual fluidity, resembling a river that constantly merges and diverges into tributaries (subdisciplines), often shaped by the convergence of fortuitous encounters or deliberate design.

In this edition of InfoFire, I am in conversation with Dr. Nicholas Belkin, an American whose academic journey took him from studying Russian language and literature to a master’s in library science. He then pursued his Ph.D. under the guidance of the legendary British Information Scientist B.C. Brookes, alongside his fellow scholar Stephen Robertson at the University College London. Luminaries such as Brian Vickey and Karen Spark Jones profoundly influenced Belkin’s academic journey.

Read/listen/watch this episode of InfoFire to gain insights into the past, present, and future of the fields of information retrieval and information science.

The Genesis of Information Science

The postwar period (1945-1960) marked a time of dynamic change and creativity worldwide. It was characterized by an accelerated pace of scientific research, which, in turn, led to a revolution in scientific information management. This period saw the emergence of domains like classification and information retrieval, laying the foundation for the birth of Information Science(IS) as a discipline.

Two landmark events played a significant role in shaping the field of Information Science: The Royal Society Scientific Information Conference (RSSIC) in London in 1948 and the International Conference on Scientific Information (ICSI) in Washington, DC, organized by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Documentation Institute in 1958.

The RSSIC conference sparked interest in classification, eventually leading to the Classification Research Group (CRG) formation in 1952. The ICSI conference broadened the scope of research from classification to information retrieval (IR), uniting scholars from diverse disciplines in the quest for a unified theoretical approach to IR. These two conferences helped the birthing of Information Science.

Brian Vickery played a pivotal role as the secretary of the CRG, significantly influencing the direction of classification research and discussions in Britain. Vickery, a distinguished intellectual and author of numerous books and seminal papers on classification, IR, and IS, left an enduring impact on these fields (Robinson & Bawden, 2011).

Notably, Information Science’s origins as a discipline are rooted in Britain. Jason Farradane is credited with coining the terms “information science” and “Information Scientist” (Shapiro, 1995). The first recorded usage of the term “Information Science” appeared in a 1955 paper by Farradane, where he discussed the establishment of qualifications in documentation or “information science” within the contemporary British academic and professional landscape (Farradane, 1955).

In their book Handbook of Information Science, Stock & Stock (2013) provide a comprehensive account of the origin and development of IS. They cover the conceptualization of information, its various strands, subdisciplines, and related fields. According to their classification, Information Science encompasses five subdisciplines:

  • Information retrieval (the science and engineering of search engines)
  • Knowledge representation (the science and engineering of knowledge storage and representation)
  • Informetrics (encompassing all metrics applied in information science)
  • Information markets and society (exploring the economics and sociology of information)
  • Knowledge management
—"information is that which is capable of transforming structure"—Nick Belkin

Information Science: Search for Identity and a Unified Theory

The emergence of computers played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of Information Science. The fusion of information retrieval and management with computing technologies marked a significant turning point. In 1950, Calvin Mooers introduced the term “Information Retrieval” (Mooers, 1950), a term that would go on to become fundamental to the field. A major milestone in this journey was the development of information retrieval systems and databases, exemplified by the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLARS system. This progress in mechanization and automation of IR continued relentlessly from the 1950s onwards, eventually giving rise to ubiquitous Search Engines like Google and more contemporary innovations like ChatGPT.

As the fields of IR and IS experienced robust growth and expansion, there emerged a collective quest among scholars to establish a unified theory and a distinct identity for Information Science. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed dedicated efforts to lay the theoretical foundations of the discipline. The impact of the two NATO advanced study institutes on Information Science in 1972 and 1973, as noted by Debons and Horne (1997), was substantial in shaping these foundations. One notable outcome of this era was the book titled Information Science Search for Identity: Proceedings of the 1972 NATO Advanced Study Institute in Information Science, edited by Debons (1974). This work not only featured a compelling title but also comprehensively explored the challenges, issues, and opportunities facing the emerging discipline.

Countless scholars made significant contributions to the development of Information Science’s theoretical underpinnings. B.C. Brookes (1980) deserves special recognition for his foundational equation of Information Science and his four-part paper on the discipline’s core principles, which remains seminal. Brookes recognized the nascent field of Information Science and charted its nature and direction by integrating his interests in scientific and information studies, statistics, and the philosophy of science. At the First International Research Forum in Information Science held at the University College London in 1975, Brookes boldly declared, “…information science …has arrived as a science.” (Shaw, 1990)

Nickolas (Nick) Belkin, who completed his PhD under the guidance of B.C. Brookes, alongside Stephen Robertson, reflected on his personal journey and the evolution of Information Science during his keynote address at the ACM SIG IR Salton Award ceremony in 2015 (Belkin, 2016).

During his address, he shared that, as young Ph.D. students, he and Stephen Robertson received encouragement and support from B.C. Brookes and Brian Vickery to organize a gathering of information science researchers in London in 1975. This event was ambitiously named the International Research Forum in Information Science.

Belkin eloquently described the excitement and significance of conducting research in the field of information science and information retrieval during that time. He emphasized how being part of this context profoundly influenced the careers of many individuals in the field, expressing gratitude for the fortuitous circumstances that led him to it.

The Notion of Information for Information Science

Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s work on Information Theory in the 1940s left an indelible mark on Information Science. Yet, the emergence of Information Science also prompted endeavors to define and develop a nuanced understanding of “information” within this evolving field. The challenge lay in the ubiquity of information; it was a term and concept widely used in both everyday language and scientific literature, offering a range of definitions. Depending on one’s perspective, it could span from “sensory input” to a “representation of something” to a “pattern influencing formation or transformation” or even a “formal criminal charge.”

In the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) continuum, information is conceptualized as data (comprising text, images, audio, and video) that has been thoughtfully organized, presented, and communicated among individuals, organizations, or systems. It serves multifaceted purposes, such as facilitating decision-making, problem-solving, learning, or entertainment.

Extensive research and scholarly discussions concerning the notion of information took place during the 1970s and 1980s, with leading scholars like Nicholas Belkin significantly influencing the foundational concepts, concerns, and frameworks related to information and Information Science. Michael Buckland (1991) categorized “information” based on its utility: “information as a process,” “information as knowledge,” and “information as an entity.” While various scientific disciplines examine information from diverse angles and perspectives, it remains a central focus in Information Science.

Belkin (1978) introduces a nuanced yet fundamental differentiation between the definition and concept of information. Following a comprehensive and analytical examination of diverse information concepts, he puts forth his own perspective on information. Rooted in the overarching notion that “information is that which is capable of transforming structure,” particularly within a specific segment of the information spectrum, Belkin conceptualizes information (in the context of information science) as the structure of any text with the potential to alter the image structure of a recipient.

Capurro and Hjørland (2003) conducted an exhaustive examination of the concept of information, tracing its origins from Latin and Greek roots to contemporary and postmodern interpretations. They made crucial distinctions between information as an object or entity and information as a subjective concept, acting as a sign contingent upon the interpretation of a cognitive agent.

Thellefsen et al. (2014) revisited Belkin’s conceptualization of information, asserting its ongoing influence and paradigmatic significance, particularly within the cognitive viewpoint of Information Retrieval (IR) and Interactive Information Retrieval (IIR). Belkin’s concept of information as explored in the realm of information science has guided and shaped research on information, leaving an enduring impact on the field.

The Cognitive Paradigm in Information Science

Disciplines naturally evolve over time, and significant transformations are often viewed through the lens of Kuhn’s concept of paradigm (Kuhn, 1962). Kuhn’s framework comprises four stages: Normal science, Extraordinary research, Adoption of a new paradigm, and the Aftermath of the scientific revolution. In the early years of Information Science, the primary focus was on developing information retrieval systems and achieving efficient information organization and retrieval. During their formative stages in the 1960s and 1970s, both Information Retrieval (IR) and Information Science (IS) were grounded in the physical paradigm and aligned with the prevailing positivistic ideas about information, heavily influenced by Claude Shannon’s Information Theory (Urs, 1992).

The cognitive revolution in psychology, which gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, influenced Information Science in the 1970s. This shift, accompanied by a growing emphasis on user-centered design and the emergence of Human-Computer Interaction, prompted IS researchers to depart from the physical paradigm and advocate for the adoption of the cognitive paradigm. Scholars increasingly recognized the significance of human cognition in the design of information systems and interfaces. By the 1990s, IS research had pivoted towards comprehending the cognitive aspects of information-seeking behavior. Marcia Bates (1999; 2002) delved into the various cognitive processes involved in information search, including problem formulation, query refinement, and relevance judgments. Bates (2005) contended that IS is a meta-discipline. Bates (2022) has advocated for a true disciplinary status and a proto paradigm for information science research.

Nicholas Belkin stands as one of the pioneers of the cognitive paradigm in IS, notably through his seminal work on information concepts (Belkin, 1975). His ASK (Anomalous State of Knowledge) model (Belkin, 1980) firmly establishes Belkin as a leading proponent of the cognitive paradigm in IS. Belkin has maintained a steadfast focus on the user and user behavior within the realm of IR, encompassing search behavior and personalized IR (https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=0K0G50IAAAAJ). In his recent talks and publications, Belkin has strongly advocated radical IR personalization.

Belkin on Information, Information Interaction, information ubiquity, Personalizing IR, and information science.

In this episode of InfoFire, Nicholas Belkin provides insights into several critical issues. A set of ten questions framed the foundation for this enlightening fireside chat:

Reconceptualizing Information: In the dynamic digital age characterized by fluid content forms, does the traditional conceptualization of information anchored to structure and image (especially in textual content) remain relevant?

Cognitive Paradigm: As digital devices become integral to information interaction, how does the concept of distributed cognition, as proposed by cognitive anthropologist Edwin Hutchins, align with Belkin’s idea of an embedded person within information systems?

Information Ubiquity: With the shift from information scarcity to information ubiquity, what should Information Science prioritize beyond facilitating access?

Integrating Information Behavior: In an era of information ubiquity and changing information behaviors, how can Information Retrieval (IR) systems effectively integrate individualistic and context-specific information behavior into their processes?

Empowering User Control: Belkin has emphasized the importance of giving users control over their information experience. Can you provide examples of scenarios where such control can be achieved?

Balancing Personalization and Privacy: How can Information Science address the delicate balance between radical personalization in IR and concerns about privacy, where systems often seem to know more about users than they know about themselves?

The ASK Paradigm: The “ASK before interacting with the IRS” concept is appealing but challenging to implement. How can we better understand and apply this approach to deliver personalized results effectively?

Human-AI Interaction: As AI-driven personal assistants become prevalent, how can we ensure that they remain assistants and don’t overshadow human decision-making and control?

Interaction-Centric IR: Is there a noticeable shift from user-centric to interaction-centric Information Retrieval in the age of AI, and what direction does Information Science seem to be heading in today’s landscape?

The Future of Information Science: Considering evolving paradigms and the influence of AI, what does the future hold for Information Science? What identity will the field adopt as it continues to evolve?

Belkin graciously agreed to address these questions and share his valuable insights on these pressing issues and concerns in Information Science.

Information as the change of structure

Belkin and Robertson (1976) offer an expansive definition of information — Information is that which is capable of transforming structure. They delineate a comprehensive spectrum of information concepts and elucidate a particular segment of this spectrum tailored to the objectives of information science. Belkin stands among the foremost scholars who have profoundly influenced and cultivated foundational concepts, concerns, and frameworks within the realm of information and information science.

According to Belkin, the overarching notion of information, characterized as a structure associated with a text or message with which individuals engage and which possesses the potential, perhaps even the intention, to modify a person’s state of knowledge, remains pertinent. This concept continues to serve as a foundational principle for designing systems and services geared towards assisting individuals in achieving their goals and fulfilling their tasks, enriching their lives through effective and potentially enjoyable interactions with information. In essence, “Information is and exists as structure” endures as a valid axiom across various forms of information.

Information Interaction: The Role of Cognitive Actors

“Information interaction processes and outcomes are profoundly influenced by the interplay between human cognition and other cognitive actors. Within the realm of Information Interaction research, our primary objective is to unravel the intricacies of how these cognitive actors engage with one another. We concentrate on comprehending the individual’s role within the broader context of interacting cognitive entities and the encompassing physical and social environments. In this context, I employ the term ’embodied person.’ I personally do not find direct relevance in applying the concept of distributed cognition to studying information interaction,” asserts Belkin.

The Era of Information Ubiquity

With the advent of the Internet and its ever-expanding reach, the information landscape has transformed from one of scarcity to ubiquity. In today’s digital realm, individuals find themselves perpetually immersed in an extensive sea of information. Within this context, both IR and IS must adapt and evolve. Rather than perceiving information seeking as a deliberate and linear endeavor, they must recognize it as an all-encompassing and highly dynamic process.

Nicholas Belkin asserts that information was never truly scarce; rather, it was challenging to obtain. Now, it has become almost too accessible. To address this transformation, our focus should shift toward understanding how individuals interact with information across all aspects of their daily lives and within the various dimensions of their cognitive conditions. IS should contemplate how to assist people in managing information overload, enhancing the utilization of information that holds significance and relevance to their unique contexts, at specific moments, and for specific purposes.

Central to this endeavor is an understanding of the motivations driving individuals’ information-seeking behaviors. This understanding forms the cornerstone for designing systems tailored to these very purposes.

The Personalization-Privacy Paradox: Striking a Delicate Balance

The personalization-privacy paradox embodies the intricate equilibrium between the benefits of tailored services and the privacy concerns of online users. This enduring conundrum arises from the juxtaposition of users’ genuine appreciation for personalized experiences with their growing apprehension regarding the potential misuse of personal data to deliver customized interactions and outcomes.

The ubiquity of smartphones, intimately tied to individual users and their omnipresence, combined with their ever-expanding processing capabilities, has firmly established them as the primary device for diverse online activities. Simultaneously, the widespread adoption of mobile applications (commonly referred to as ‘apps’) for gathering user information and delivering personalized content and services has intensified the significance of this paradox, spurring extensive research endeavors (Cloarec, 2020).

Drawing from the theoretical perspectives of Uses and Gratification Theory (UGT) and Information Boundary Theory (IBT), Sutanto et al. (2013) conceptualize the extent to which privacy influences the gratifications derived from personalization, proposing an IT solution designed to alleviate privacy concerns based on field experimentation studies. They advocate for a solution model that stores and processes consumers’ information locally, within their own smartphones, rather than on providers’ servers. They demonstrate how such an IT solution can address the personalization-privacy paradox.

Information Boundary Theory, a conceptual framework, delves into how individuals and groups interact with information across diverse contexts and explores how physical and social boundaries influence these interactions.

In this fireside chat, Belkin emphasized the need to design systems that safeguard data privacy while providing personalized information services. He suggested that one potential solution could involve storing personal data and interaction behavior data at the user’s end rather than on service providers’ servers, acknowledging the attendant challenges this approach may bring.

Information Interaction: Empowering Users

Belkin emphasizes that information systems should prioritize users and be designed to assist them in finding relevant and useful information in their preferred format, mode, or source. User interests should take precedence, with individuals maintaining control over the interaction, rather than the system dictating the terms. The user shall be in control in an ideal information system and interactions.

Considering information overload, information science must carefully consider how to assist individuals in managing and effectively utilizing information that matters to them. Information scientists should aim to design systems and create environments that empower people to engage with information relevant to their specific needs and contexts at any given moment. While Belkin avoids the term “filter,” he advocates for the development of context-appropriate filtering mechanisms to aid individuals in their daily information interactions.

The Future of Information Science

It is imperative that the field of information science and information professionals adopt a stewardship role in fostering a people-centric information environment. Information science should ensure that information systems are tailored to support users in their information interactions, aligning with their unique situations and needs. This is the path we should be pursuing, posits Belkin.


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Cite this article in APA as: Urs, S. (2023, October 3). Whither information science? Fireside chat with Nick Belkin, a pioneer of the cognitive paradigm. Information Matters, Vol. 3, Issue 10. https://informationmatters.org/2023/10/whither-information-science-fireside-chat-with-nick-belkin-a-pioneer-of-the-cognitive-paradigm/


  • Shalini Urs

    Dr. Shalini Urs is an information scientist with a 360-degree view of information and has researched issues ranging from the theoretical foundations of information sciences to Informatics. She is an institution builder whose brainchild is the MYRA School of Business (www.myra.ac.in), founded in 2012. She also founded the International School of Information Management (www.isim.ac.in), the first Information School in India, as an autonomous constituent unit of the University of Mysore in 2005 with grants from the Ford Foundation and Informatics India Limited. She is currently involved with Gooru India Foundation as a Board member (https://gooru.org/about/team) and is actively involved in implementing Gooru’s Learning Navigator platform across schools. She is professor emerita at the Department of Library and Information Science of the University of Mysore, India. She conceptualized and developed the Vidyanidhi Digital Library and eScholarship portal in 2000 with funding from the Government of India, which became a national initiative with further funding from the Ford Foundation in 2002.

Shalini Urs

Dr. Shalini Urs is an information scientist with a 360-degree view of information and has researched issues ranging from the theoretical foundations of information sciences to Informatics. She is an institution builder whose brainchild is the MYRA School of Business (www.myra.ac.in), founded in 2012. She also founded the International School of Information Management (www.isim.ac.in), the first Information School in India, as an autonomous constituent unit of the University of Mysore in 2005 with grants from the Ford Foundation and Informatics India Limited. She is currently involved with Gooru India Foundation as a Board member (https://gooru.org/about/team) and is actively involved in implementing Gooru’s Learning Navigator platform across schools. She is professor emerita at the Department of Library and Information Science of the University of Mysore, India. She conceptualized and developed the Vidyanidhi Digital Library and eScholarship portal in 2000 with funding from the Government of India, which became a national initiative with further funding from the Ford Foundation in 2002.