My research focuses on how people share, evaluate and integrate diverse types of information, in professional environments such as digital libraries and interdisciplinary scientific collaborations, and in informal environments such as online social Q&A communities. By studying similar processes in diverse environments, I see my research as a bridge to help traditionally separate communities inform one another. Finding ways to provide access to multiple perspectives on common problems, and acknowledging diverse forms and sources of expertise, can yield more dynamic, well-grounded, and actionable information.
My primary research area is in the domain of Social Q&A (SQA): online systems allowing people to ask, answer and interact around a framework of question answering. SQA sites such as Yahoo! Answers have enabled new forms of social information seeking, where people can seek and share information directly, bypassing traditional structures of authority, expertise and publication, which has serious implications for the design and evolution of professional information services. For example, search engine results are no longer based solely on the content of a Web document, but can include social elements as well, such as the location of the searcher, and the number of times a document has been found useful (usually via ratings or "likes") by others. Understanding the extent to which a document's topical relevance balances with its popularity--and how this relationship might be influenced or gamed--is one key application of SQA research.
The Answerbag SQA community is my primary testbed, and is built around a “one question—multiple answers” architecture, allowing people to see the range of diverse answers on a single page, ranked by ratings of past readers and enhanced by comment threads around each answer. The collected answer pages serve as boundary objects--common spaces in which novices and experts can share and contrast opinions--and allow people to integrate the ideas of a wide range of contributors. My SQA research addresses questions of how participants produce, evaluate and synthesize diverse content, to identify patterns of peer production and content evaluation that may also be applicable to environments such as open source software collaborations. SQA interactions are inherently social, so my research also addresses questions of how people gain expertise and standing within online communities, how online identities are built and expressed, and the extent to which the model of aggregate peer authority underlying SQA sites compares with more traditional forms of expertise. Some of my SQA research findings and publications include:
- In SQA sites, answers of synthesists (operationalized as
cite authorities in answers) tend to be rated more highly than
specialists (those claiming to be authorities). (Gazan 2006, "Specialists
Synthesists in a Question Answering Community," ASIST
Annual Meeting). This
conference paper was one of the earliest publications in the domain
SQA, and is one of my most cited works. It addresses the core
SQA question of how users evaluate content, and suggests that like
reviewers of academic works, SQA participants also equate quality
embedded reference sources.
- People work around the limitations of the single-asker SQA
model to engage in brief, lightweight "microcollaborations," where
or more users collaborate to find answers to questions of mutual
interest. (Gazan 2010, "Microcollaborations
a Social Q&A Community," Information
& Management 46(6), 693-702.). This work
has potential implications for the inclusion of a peer reference
in library virtual reference services, and the design of mobile apps
to support this activity.
- In the aftermath of a site redesign that temporarily disrupted
communication, experienced users leveraged remaining site
to broker offsite contact information and coordinate a mass exodus.
(Gazan 2011, "Redesign
an Act of Violence: Disrupted Interaction Patterns and the
Fragmenting of a Social Q&A Community," ACM Conference on
Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2011), 2847-2856. New York:
ACM). This paper presents a rare case study of a user revolt on
an SQA site, providing lessons for design priorities, and a better
understanding of how the social capital users gain within an online
community can be applied against it.
- Also, I have recently contributed a review and synthesis of the SQA literature for the Advances in Information Science section of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology. (Gazan 2011, "Social Q&A," Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, DOI: 10.1002/asi.21562). This publication continues the recently ceased Annual Review of Information Science & Technology, one of the most frequently cited works in the field of information science.
- People make normative distinctions between motivated "seekers" and disengaged "sloths" who post homework questions to SQA sites, and provide superior answers to the former group.
- A critical point in the evolution of an online community is when its participants demonstrate awareness of themselves as a community, through the creation and expression of nicknames, site rituals and community standards, among others.
- Comment threads around SQA answers can be viewed as a kind of "social annotation," providing evidence of others' engagement with the content, and serve many of the same functions as handwritten annotations in textbooks.
- The online behavior of rogue users, longtime community members who actively oppose site rules, displays some characteristics of mental disorders, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
I also conduct research on interdisciplinary scientific collaborations. Coordinating and integrating the work of diverse scientists is a perennial challenge in large-scale scientific research projects, and I am attempting to address this question as a Co-Investigator on Water and Habitable Worlds, a 5-year NASA grant awarded to the University of Hawaii NASA Astrobiology Institute, where I work with scientists from a wide range of disciplines studying life beyond Earth. My core project is to develop the Astrobiology Integrative Research Framework (AIRFrame), a prototype ontology to relate the work of astrobiology researchers from diverse disciplines both conceptually (by subject) and functionally (by researcher, hypothesis, mission, research questions, NASA goals, etc.), so that findings in one discipline can be made more accessible to scientists in others. While my participation in astrobiology research began in 2009, it has been grounded by my earlier work with geospatial digital libraries and the design of an environmental information system designed for both academic and general audiences. My work in this area has yielded several publications, and has suggested some practical tools and strategies for successful interdisciplinary collaborations. Some results to date include:
- A shared narrative can serve as a boundary object through which
diverse participants can collaborate. Framing oceanographic
research expedition data with a narrative of exploration led to
increased evidence of collaboration and information sharing among
participants in the design of an oceanographic information
One paper reporting these results (Gazan 2005, "Imposing Structures:
Narrative Analysis and the Design of Information Systems," Library
& Information Science Research
27(3) 346-362) has been cited in three medical informatics journals,
highlighting the interdisciplinary applicability of this work.
- An overview of some successful practices of interdisciplinary science, including a shared XML ontology, to link documents from diverse disciplinary domains and inform the creation of AIRFrame.
- How research questions can serve as boundary objects across which
interdisciplinary communication and collaboration take place.
- Adapting an open source text retrieval framework and software to
a collection of documents in astrobiology.
- Creating a publication profile for a broad corpus of astrobiology documents showing five major constituent journal subject areas; most established disciplines publish roughly 80% of their output in journals within their own discipline, providing one measure of astrobiology's interdisciplinarity.
- A paper analyzing how people use Web message boards to integrate the diverse inputs of media portrayals of astrobiology research, the perceived credibility of celebrity scientists, and their own understanding of science to distill and debate their opinions about life in the universe.
- A panel proposal reporting that a preliminary analysis of astrobiology questions submitted to SQA sites suggests that a more topical, opinionated approach to professional online reference services could be provided by libraries, in domains that are inherently speculative.
Some other projects I've worked on include:
California Explores the Ocean, a multimedia collection of oceanographic resources from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives and Library, the UC San Diego Libraries and the San Diego Historical Society (UCSD 2003-2004)
Alexandria Digital Earth Prototype (ADEPT), design and evaluation of a digital library of geospatial resources for undergraduate education (UCLA Department of Information Studies, 2000-2003)
NatureBib, a database of plants and animals found in Pacific Area national parks (U.S. National Park Service, 1998)
Both threads of my research focus on how people without a shared context, be they scientists from different disciplines or strangers on the Web, negotiate, exchange and evaluate information from diverse sources. With an ever-broader range of information resources and methods of access becoming available, it is increasingly important to understand how people evaluate, reconcile and contribute to information accessible to all.