What Are You Reading?

April 26, 2004
When it Comes to Judging the Quality of Technical Information, First Consider its Source

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?

Commercial Awareness

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

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.

Not-So-White Papers

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.

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 InternetThe 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 protected]m.

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