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There is a constant demand for engineers other technical professionals to keep their technical knowledge current and expand their professional skills. One of the ways all of us do this is by reading. There is a considerable amount of informational/technical material available out there and it is expanding exponentially as we speak. Given the Internet and the number of available seminars, conferences, trade magazines, papers and textbooks, we are in an age of unparalleled access to technical information.
Trouble is, do you really know what are you reading? Do the technical articles and papers you read contain the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Or are there other forces at play that affect the technical validity of the content?
There are a number of things that affect the value and quality of technical articles, and their merit as a source of technical information for the process industries. Commercial bias is one of the leading factors in determining the quality of technical articles in the process industry today.
Commercialism influences technical material in a wide variety of ways, some of it obvious, but some less obvious to the uninformed observer. Commercial bias in and of itself is not inherently wrong, but can become a problem when what appears to be an unbiased technical analysis or presentation of facts has, in reality, an overt commercial bias.
Control engineers shouldn't be surprised that much
of the technical material they read may contain a
hidden commercial bias.
Technical information is presented in a number of familiar formats including magazine articles, white papers, product specifications, application/technical notes, and marketing brochures. The commercial bias in much of this material is obvious. It should be clear that a brochure for example, will show the product in its most favorable light, and in some cases may imply even more than that.
On the other hand, a product specification sheet, which one would assume is factual, may be commercially biased depending on how "optimistic" the manufacturer's marketing and product managers were when they wrote up the specifications. Some manufacturers are overly optimistic, while others are excessively conservative in the way they write their specifications.
Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
Where we get into difficulty is when technical information is presented in a form that can hide or obfuscate its commercial bias.
Trade magazine articles are a common source of technical information for the time-stressed technical professional and considered by many to be the most convenient. Each magazine has its own editorial "style" which influences the content and quality of the articles. Some are more technical in nature while others are more product oriented. Trade magazine technical articles range from solid, fact-based unbiased technical articles, to those with strong product bias and commercial content.
Technical journals present technical/academic papers in a magazine format. Most technical journals are typically published by technical societies. Technical journals tend to have little or no advertising because there production is funded by their membership and the content is not paid for. Content is commonly sourced from the best papers presented at technical conferences or from noted members invited to submit material. As such, they are typically free of commercial bias and of good technical quality. However, you generally have to pay more for technical journals, and useful content can vary depending on the individual requirements.
Bias is Sneaky
Commercial bias in technical papers can sneak in and often appears in three general forms: the disguised commercial paper, the commercial technical paper, and the white paper. Most professional societies and conference paper committees try to weed out papers with overt commercial bias. However, while a paper or its abstract may presented with little commercial content, its commercial bias can come out when the author presents the paper, since the actual presentation is not generally pre-reviewed.
Technical papers and abstracts for technical conference sessions are typically peer-reviewed, but the process may not have the rigor that it has in the academic world, where a committee of content experts reviews a paper prior to publication or presentation.
Among industrial associations and engineering societies associated with the process industries world, the review might consist of a committee of one or two people who may or may not be experts on the subject or topic being considered. The next time your industry association or engineering society asks you to join a paper reviewing committee, remember that your participation may help boost the quality of the technical information you rely on.
Commercial technical papers are written to favor strongly a technical position that endorses a product or product type. These papers are written in a format similar to the one used for conferences, but may or may not be published in a peer-reviewed journal. On its face, this type of paper does not appear to tout a particular product or company, but uses accepted technical logic or analysis to present a position that favors a particular product, type of product, or service. The direct commercial connection can be subtle and again, may be hidden from the uninformed reader.
Manufacturers or vendors write white papers to serve their own purposes. These too are typically unpublished, but often mimic the format of a standard published technical paper. These papers can range from technology tutorials to papers describing the manufacturer's product advantages and applications. The white paper is not inherently biased when it is associated directly with its source and identified clearly as to it purpose. These papers are usually produced by the manufacturer's marketing departments and available through the company's web site or through information clearing houses on the Internet.
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