You are on page 1of 2

Why engineers don’t write

Why engineers don’t write*
Eugene Garfield, the inventor of ‘Science Citation Index’ (now ‘Web of Science’), once made a hyped statement that “engineers read but don’t write and scientists write but don’t read”. It is difficult to say that reading is the only superior way of acquiring information. It is well known that a great body of information is getting around by a mechanism called gossip or chat. Unlike Scientists, engineers when they face a technical problem or a decision-making situation, first turn to intra-personal reserve supplies of information like one’s own memory/ knowledge, personal files and colleagues. If still unable to solve the problem or not willing to abandon it and withdraw from the situation or accept the unsatisfactory solution and do with incomplete information, then only they look for information from formal sources like books, reports and journals provided sufficient interest and energy remains. In brief, the primary source of engineering information is largely what the engineer keeps in his head or possibly knows where to find and hence interpersonal communication is the 'life blood' of practicing engineers. Since the effects of knowledge and experience are largely involuntary and subconscious, it is difficult to make estimate on the nature, size and value of such intra-personal source of information. Tapping such ‘tacit knowledge’ is the aim of Knowledge Management (KM). Engineers drawing most (63%) of their information from in-house sources is attributed to (i) the nature of work that engineers are concerned with `making things work', (ii) the psychological traits that predispose an engineer to solve problems by himself or with the help of colleagues rather than by finding answer in the literature, (iii) use of relatively old basic science inputs for technological innovation, and (iv) the kind of training and habituation (or lack of it?) of engineers in use of formal information system. There are other reasons for relatively greater role played by informal sources of information in case of practitioner-engineer. He normally works under the conditions of uncertainty and/or anxiety in diverse set of areas and hence naturally turn first to their colleagues to compare the results with other similar results, to get a tailor made solution synthesised to support his finding , to have a source of confidence and reassurance, to get details concerning procedures or experiments, to cut short the lag in publication-time, to have expert assistance in locating diverse set of published material, to enable communicating inter-personally the complex messages and to fill the gap between supply of and demand for information. It is interesting that engineers do not always turn to information sources, which reward them most. They try to minimise loss than maximising the gain in turning to a particular source, exhibiting a sort of conservative approach probably due to their objective of doing `better things' than `best things'. Their prototype model becomes progressively more 'frozen' and decisions irrevocable as the project progresses. They spend 90-95% of project time in prototype phase compared to limited time (5-10%) spent on systems-definition phase and try to build not the 'best' but a `better' technology than before by focusing on a limited number of alternatives. Some have refuted the general finding (or belief!) that engineers read less than other professionals. It is said that the complex relationship between engineers and their sources of information is still not well understood and findings were often interpreted out of context. The limited use of journals by engineers is attributable to the fact that engineers do not encourage the continuous integration of new ideas within existing practice till they are time-tested for their reliability. There is some inter-linking and interdependence in use of formal and informal sources of information so that each stimulates the use of the other depending on situation and thus act as mutually supportive, dependent and complimentary sources of information. The circumstances under which engineers seek information from formal sources are quite interesting. Engineers prefer formal sources of information when they have to (i) minimise risk, (ii) pass on decisions
M S Sridhar

1

Why engineers don’t write

to higher ups, (iii) check authenticity of information from informal sources of information, (iv) fill gaps in information available from informal sources and (v) overcome difficulty in putting information from informal sources into action. It has been confirmed, time and again, that informal, oral and inter-personal sources of information within ones own organization, particularly peers, are rich sources of information at the immediate disposal of engineers. In brief, unlike scientists and academicians, the practicing engineers have their own unique ways of gathering information and hence the common measures like citation counts, dependence on libraries rarely reflect the true multifaceted information gathering behaviour of practicing engineers. Dr. M S Sridhar mirlesridhar@gmail.com -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------* “Why scientists do’nt read and engineers don’t write”, Deccan Herald, 62 (140) 21 May 2009, DH Education, p 2. http://www.deccanheraldepaper.com/svww_index1.php
Address: 1103, ‘Mirle House’, 19th B Main, J P Nagar 2nd Phase, Bangalore – 560078; Ph: 26593312. Mobile: 9964063960

M S Sridhar

2