Conceptualizations and Definitions

Traditionally, information seeking has been studied at the individual level (Shah 2010a). Yet, as work and organizations become more collaborative (Karsten 1999; Reddy and Dourish 2002), the importance of studying information seeking from a collaborative perspective has become apparent. This perspective on information seeking is referred to as CIS. CIS is an interdisciplinary research domain that spans multiple fields, such as information science (IS), human-computer interaction (HCI), and CSCW. CIS is also studied in varied variety of contexts including education, military, and medical settings.

In this chapter, we use the term CIS, yet there are many related and often interchangeable terms that also refer to the concept of CIS. Shah (2010a) has identified the following terms and research focuses as being strongly related to CIS: collaborative information retrieval (CIR) (Fidel et al. 2000), collaborative search (Morris 2013), social searching (Evans and Chi 2009), collaborative exploratory search (Pickens and Golovchinsky 2007), co-browsing (Gerosa et al. 2004), and collaborative information behavior (CIB) (Reddy and Jansen 2008). Even though the breadth and specificity of each of the terms is different, they all incorporate aspects of CIS.

The variety of terms presents challenges in defining specifically what CIS is for two reasons. First, there is not a clear understanding of what the breadth of the definition should include. For instance, some definitions include the act of seeking, searching, and retrieving information, whereas some only include one of those actions. Second, definitions of CIS greatly vary depending on the community. As Foster (2006) highlights, depending on the community, certain aspects of the definition “may emphasize information handling, search and retrieval, interaction, or the seeking and retrieving of information in support of collaborative work tasks.” However, despite these challenges, there are a few widely acknowledged CIS definitions that are widely cited.

The most widely acknowledged definition comes from Foster (2006) who defines CIS as “the study of the systems and practices that enable individuals to collaborate during the seeking, searching, and retrieval of information.” Similar to Foster (2006), Poltrock et al. (2003) have also defined CIS “as the activities that a group or team of people undertakes to identify and resolve a shared information need.” Taking a more specific approach to CIS, Hansen and Jarvelin (2005) use the following definition of CIS: “an information access activity related to a specific problem-solving activity that, implicitly or explicitly, involves human beings interacting with other human(s) directly and/or through texts (e.g., documents, notes, figures) as information sources in an work task related information seeking and retrieval process either in a specific workplace setting or in a more open community or environment.” In addition, Karunakaran and Reddy (2012) define CIS in the simplest terms: “two or more individuals working together to seek needed information in order to satisfy a goal.”

In addition to the definitional understanding of CIS, it is also important to note that CIS is a highly complex contextual and dynamic activity. The activity can involve both static and dynamic goals that are specific to the situation and context or there may be no goal at all. Also, depending on the situation and context, information may change throughout CIS. Finally, CIS requires multiple people with many individual differences to work together using many different means to seek information.

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