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Commercial technical papers and white papers can contain useful information, however, the manufacturer has a vested interest in providing these papers and what is said in any paper must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism and a grain of salt.
Vested and Other Interests
Vested interest in this context represents the author's personal gain in the view point, theory, or method he is advocating. This commonly happens when the author has developed a technical viewpoint, theory or method and is trying to prove its superiority over other competing or contrary viewpoints, theories or methods.
Academics and professionals on the border between the academic and practical world commonly work in this manner. There is nothing inherently wrong in expressing your viewpoint, or supporting a particular professional opinion, but from the reader's perspective, one should realize that a vested interest may provide an article or book with a single viewpoint and a bias that is neither a balanced nor represents a comprehensive approach to the material or the technology being presented.
Bias is a human failing that we all have. However, when a writer lets too much unsupported bias seep into technical material, it can make it difficult for the reader to determine the quality and technical merit of what is being read.
Omission and Other Sins
To justify an author's technical viewpoint by excluding or partially excluding equally-valid viewpoints, can distort and add bias to technical information. Sometimes, though, this is not a conscious or deliberate effort. Many people recognize this as the behavior of strongly opinionated people. What this can lead to, however, is material that appears to be an honest representation of facts, but in reality, fails to present the truth fully or clearly.
Separating Good from Bad
A good quality article is technically correct, comprehensive, balanced, has good readability, contains concise factual information and is written toward the technical level of person who is likely to read and benefit from it.
Many trade and engineering periodicals have regular, experienced and knowledgeable contributors or solicit articles from recognized experts to provide quality content for their readers. Trade journal editors also work to present balanced content and choose contributions that offer the most value to readers and help them understand the merit or value of a given technology or process practice.
By the same token, association and engineering society conference committees often invite noted experts to present papers that weigh in on high-profile or controversial technical issues. These types of papers are generally of higher quality. The papers you see in technical journals are typically peer-reviewed and selected on merit from the best of the articles presented at symposia and typically are of better quality.
The Internet is a popular source for technical information and there are many mailing lists, newsgroups and bulletin boards that discuss technical issues. Some of the more popular ones are the ISA mail lists (http://www.isa.org), the USENET newsgroups such as engr.sci.control, and the Automation List (AList) at http://lists.control.com/mailman/listinfo/automation . Mailing list and bulletin boards can serve as a source of technical information, but at the same time there is a lot of misinformation (and sometimes flat out wrong information) presented there that can limit its usefulness. Sometimes, the source of information can become suspect, if the post is unsigned or the poster does not declare a company affiliation.
Most of these lists are strongly anti-commercial, dating back to the academic origin of the Internet. It must be remembered that information from a post is a like a sound bite that provides limited information, which is, in turn, based on the limited information in the original question(and subsequent posts).
One must view what they find on mail list and bulletin boards with an even more refined skepticism and many grains of salt. To help form your opinions and judge the merit of the information, try and learn who on the mail list or bulletin boards is technically competent and has the credentials to support their opinion and who is not. Before you use information from a mail list and bulletin board, it may be prudent to follow up with the author so that you are sure that your interpretation of the post is correct.
With all the information floating around these days, it can be a daunting task to differentiate the good information from the not so good and reject the downright bad information.
With this information overload, a primary key is be able to filter or reject commercial bias, vested interest, personal bias, to get to the quality information you need"not only to develop better technical skills, but do your job better and help you manage your available time so when you de read you can give it the time and careful consideration it deserves. A healthy dose of skepticism and double-checking the sources of important information can go a long way to improving the value you can get from any technical article. Good luck and good hunting!
William L. (Bill) Mostia Jr., PE, of exida League City, Texas, has more than 25 years experience applying safety, instrumentation and control systems in process facilities. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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