Alien Information Behavior
(or: Do you really want to know what a Ph.D. student spends time on?)
by Kari Holland, Information Science Ph.D.

As an iSchool Ph.D.-student one is required to think deep thoughts, conjure up new theories and ponder their ramifications and those of existing theoretical explanations for all things informational--backed up with empirical evidence, of course. And, of course, the research question has to be original. If one could coin new terms along the way; even better. Then, one is really destined for the stars, so to speak.

This essay offers a picture of what happens when one of the confused and overburdened minds harbored within the iSchool Ph.D. student community is required to define, question, observe, study, test and philosophize about information science. Our own Dr. Harry Bruce once wrote that the Ph.D. process is filled with grandiose ideas, weariness and boredom (Bruce, 1998, p. 57). It was under a severe attack of those exact Ph.D.- “talents” that this topic presented itself to the author.

Alien Information Behavior?

My primary research interests are in information behavior and knowledge organization, and as a good Ph.D. student I think about what those things mean and why they are called what they are. Now, information behavior is often spoken of in the literature as human information behavior and the iSchool’s Ph.D. course on the matter is called Theoretical Foundations of Human Information Behavior.

Why is this area of information science called that? Why not just Information Behavior? Who else’s information behavior do we study that makes it necessary to include the distinguishing word Human? Do we study animal information behavior? No, though research exist that uses foraging theories from ethology (Pirolli and Card, 1999) and other researchers study information behavior that centers on the more “animalistic” side of humans (Spink et al., 2002) we don’t actually study animals.

So what, aside from animals, is there to contrast with Human? Sitting in a country where a job ad was seeking Klingon interpreters, the contrasting concept of an Alien comes easily to mind. Is there such a thing as alien information behavior? Could this be my original research question? And could I even be coining a new term? As a good student I went looking for clues in the literature.

Aliens in Information Science Research

I must report that there is not much openly stated in the literature about Aliens. Something that is all to the good when it comes to an original research question. On the other hand, I can’t help but conclude that there are more tacit acknowledgements than I had expected to find.

A professor and recipient of the ASIS&T 2003 Research Award belongs to the more overt acknowledgement category: “one may never forget that one is an alien” (Ingwersen, 1992, p. 130).

Another piece of evidence seems apparent in some of Karen Fisher’s research. Many of you have heard about Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Theory. You may already be familiar with the following figure and might even have had the same thoughts as I did - What is that being in there? It doesn’t look like any human being I have ever seen.

Figure from Pettigrew, Durrance, Unruh, 2002, p. 896.

And the space-time reference in the same drawing might be what settled the choice of applying Dervin’s work for another researcher who used the Sense-Making framework for a study into the information behavior of people with paranormal and supernatural interests (Kari, 2001). Participants in his study include people who have alien contacts (Kari, 2001, p. 97). This researcher does not just study information behavior, but questions the quality of the information that may come from somewhere else: “there may be severe complications with the credibility of supernatural information” (Kari, 2001, p. 22). So, obviously, there are things here that are relevant to study for a budding information scientist.

Looking through more of the literature reveals the use of concepts like: maintaining communitarian citizenship, infoshock and ACS (Alien Communication Systems???) units (Nahl, 2001). Furthermore, published research even makes a point out of calling a researcher “a human researcher” (Shneiderman, 2002, p. 6). In the field of information retrieval we have TREC, the Text Retrieval Conference, where some former CIA employees worked as relevance judges. I wonder how many of them have been to Roswell?

Encouraged by the literature that there is an acknowledgement of aliens even though the researchers are not all that explicit about it, I decided to do a little pilot study. Where better to do a study of alien information behavior than in an environment where there is a population that seems to have their own language and uses strange phrases such as “ontological commitments” and “Anomalous State of Knowledge.” Surely, there is something mysterious and outer-worldly about that.

Using participant observation I studied my fellow Ph.D. students. Preliminary findings support the hypothesis that a certain amount of my fellow Ph.D. students are, if not exactly full-blooded aliens, most certainly in close encounters with forces that are beyond common sense and understanding. They will, frequently and unexpectedly, lapse into silence, gaze into space, then suddenly mentally zoom in again and return to work on things called VRD, CHI, CSCW, CWA, KFTF, IBEC and other concepts clearly culled from an alien language.

Perhaps there is a reason why they put “Human” in front of Information Behavior after all. They just don’t explicate the contrasting concepts.


It seems appropriate to finish with some more of Dr. Bruce’s words on the Ph.D. process: the concept presented here of alien information behavior could very well be “superficial, trivial nonsense” (Bruce, 1998, p. 60) and not the original research question one was looking for unless the committee members are Martians. And as to coining a new term, I was wondering at first whether to call it ALien Information SEeking (ALISE), but that acronym is already in use. Is it just that I have had my mind “affected by extraterrestrials” (Kari, 2001, p. 78)? After all, I am an alien according to the INS. But alas, the more likely explanation seems to be that these ramblings are just a natural prolonging of wandering thoughts in a Ph.D. process where I am not headed towards the stars, but rather destined “to make an international fool of myself” (Bruce, 1998, p. 60).

Kari Holland is a librarian from Norway, she has degrees in library and information science from Norway and Denmark and is now wading the murky waters of an American Ph.D. education.


Bruce, H. 1998. The PhD process - torture, tension and triumph. Education for Library and Information Science: Australia, 15(2), 57-60.

Ingwersen, P. 1992. Information retrieval interaction. London: Taylor Graham, 246 p.

Kari, J. 2001. Information seeking and interest in the paranormal : towards a process model of information action. Academic dissertation, Department of Information Studies, University of Tampere, Finland. Accessed September 9, 2005.

Multnomah County calls off job for Klingon interpreter. 12 May, 2003. KATU 2. Accessed September 10, 2005.

Nahl, D. 2001. A conceptual framework for explaining information behavior. SIMILE: Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education, 1(2). (Accessed September 9, 2005).

Pettigrew, K.E., Durrance, J.C., Unruh, K.T. 2002. Facilitating community information seeking using the Internet: Findings from three public library-community network systems. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(11), 894-903.

Pirolli, P. and Card, S.K. 1999. Information foraging. Psychological Review, 106(4), 643-675.

Shneiderman, B. 2001. Inventing discovery tools: Combining information visualization with data mining. Information Visualization, 1(1), p. 5-12.

Spink, A., Jansen, B. J., Wolfram, D., and Saracevic, T. 2002. From E-sex to E-commerce: Web search changes. IEEE Computer, 35(3), 107 - 111.


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Page last updated: April 17, 2006